Sari Wilde: Complementary leadership can tackle the leader confidence crisis

The modern business leader is faced with an increasing array of internal and external challenges when ensuring the long-term success of his or her organisation. Beyond focusing on the profitability of the operation, they are battling with decisions around digitalisation, environmental sustainability, shifting employee expectations, and diversity and inclusion initiatives – integral business developments in which they don’t always have a specialist understanding.

According to Gartner’s recent “Reshaping Leadership to Prepare for the Future” report, half of business leaders feel unequipped to lead their organisation in the future, stifled by growing responsibilities, increased expectations, and higher transparency than ever before.

To tackle this problem, many companies are trying to adopt a ‘complementary leadership’ approach – based on the intentional partnership between multiple leaders to share responsibilities based on complementary skillsets.

Leaders drowning in responsibilities

The confidence of leaders today is being eroded by an excess of duties; leaders are simply trying to do it all. This wealth of expectation has led to a crisis of leaders’ confidence. When asked in a poll of more than 2,800 leaders whether they believe “I am well-equipped to lead my organiation in the future,” only 50 per cent of respondents agreed they were prepared.

Much of this comes down to the individual skillsets of leaders. Gartner’s annual Leader Effectiveness Survey, found that – when asked to rank responsibilities which were “highly important to their team’s success” – 32 discreet responsibilities were marked by at least two thirds of leaders (66 per cent).

There were understandable duties on this list: “Coaching and Developing Team Members” (selected by 82 per cent of respondents), and “Fostering Trust Among Team Members” (80 per cent), both proved popular.

However, among this deluge of obligations, there were responsibilities less apparently tied to the exclusive remit of an organisational leader. These included “Keeping-Up-To-Date on the Latest Digital Insights” (69 per cent) or “Innovating on Product or Service Offerings” (66 per cent) – workstreams which might typically be handled by specialist disciplines, such as chief innovation or technology officers in more forward-thinking and diversified organisations.

Leaders are also seeing their purview expanding and shifting more frequently than ever before. When nearly 3,000 leaders were asked to rank the top changes to their jobs in the last three years, one Gartner survey found that “Greater number of job responsibilities” was the top answer; expectations to have “a greater number of skills” and “a greater depth of knowledge about specific areas” ranked second and third.

Complementary leadership can relieve the load

The confidence and morale of business leaders is paramount for the long-term success of an organisation, and the implementation of a “complementary leadership” business model can help reduce the pressures faced by leaders today and drive business outcomes.

Gartner define complementary leadership as the intentional partnership between one leader and one or many leader partners, to share leadership responsibilities based on complementary skillsets. This can either be formed as a formal partnership – forged via HR initiatives – or instead as an organic, leader-initiated partnership.

The complementary model can bridge between close coworkers or distant colleagues alike, at any level of the business, and can operate for both long and short durations according to business needs.

According to another Gartner survey, leaders making use of complementary leadership models saw their teams’ performance increase by up to 60 per cent, while their own performance increased by up to 40 per cent. Simultaneously, leaders who engaged in the right partnerships to allow specialisation in core skills and lead in critical areas, saw their skill preparedness lifted by up to 54 per cent.

Building a complementary leadership model

Leaders can only begin to build complementary leadership when they realise the capabilities, strengths, and needs of themselves and those around them. A degree of awareness and emotional intelligence – increasingly heralded as the “sine qua non of leadership”, the hallmark of the most capable directors – is required.

This development itself must be nurtured by a supportive HR function, that equips leaders with the tools to identify relevant gaps locally – as opposed to becoming fixated on (and inundated by) universal needs. For instance, HR must divert leadership assessments away from organisation-wide and incorrectly prioritized metrics, which are far too broad, and instead encourage leaders to refocus on development priorities sourced directly from their teams. Doing so will encourage cohesion, as employees and leaders converge on a shared set of priorities; but allow leaders time to recalibrate, enabling them to better address the specific challenges and needs of their business unit.

This clarity afforded to leaders can then be capitalised upon by HR functions, who can prompt a period of evolution in the mindset of leadership: helping managers mold their leadership approach to balance their own gaps. Such functions may also step in to solidify these new practices by formalising networks of complementary support.

These working partnerships work best when HR leaders identify and tether the individual personalities of leaders from across different business units. Examples of such “leader partners” might include the “intrapreneur” – the type of leader who can regularly produce insightful, revenue-generating products and ideas – and who is thus best suited to support innovation and strategic planning activities. Alternatively, one might tap into the “veteran” – an established figurehead, able to offer deep institutional knowledge and a breadth of relationships across the business – for culture setting and change management projects.

Those leaders who devolve 20 per cent to 40 per cent of their important leadership responsibilities to a relevant leadership partner, Gartner analysis shows, have the highest likelihood of leading a high-performing team.

When interviewed by Gartner, many senior HR executives supported this mounting expectation of leaders. “To be successful in the future,” said one director of talent management at a medical device company, “leaders need to understand the external strategic environment, assess options, be inspirational and engaging, call teams to action, have financial acumen, focus on the customer, harness innovation, be inclusive of people and ideas…”. The list goes on.

Adopting a complementary leadership model could provide one way to alleviate leaders of this salvo of stresses.





Sari Wilde, managing vice president in Gartner’s HR practice, is responsible for managing global teams focused on creating research and products to improve human capital outcomes. Sari’s focus areas include current and future leadership, critical skills and competencies, recruiting and HR technology. She has been studying organisations for more than 15 years, advising executives at hundreds of Fortune 500 companies on their leadership and talent management practices.