Fact: organisations and the individuals that make up those organisations need to be able to survive in the certainty of the uncertain. These days that’s a given.

Complexity and ambiguity (which works both ways) in environmental, economic and technological factors come into play and so leaders need to be confident in their ability to navigate through both even and choppy waters as necessary. The ability to maintain a clear, calm and insightful mind without becoming overwhelmed and caught in a downward spiral of confusion, anxiety and stress will be the position that many leaders strive to achieve.

But, can you be all things to all people? Common sense would dictate that the answer to this question is no.

If you’re in a leadership role, people expect that you are able to flex between being strategic when required and also be good at the understanding and deploying the tactics necessary to drive the strategy. If you are one of those people that can actually balance both well you are what’s known as T-shaped or a “generalising specialist”.

Often we neglect to look beyond the depth (or height) of knowledge and appoint people to roles that demand more communication across organisational boundaries than they are able to exercise. Clearly, you want people to be well-qualified and experienced in their various disciplines, but if the crossbars of the Ts don’t extend far enough sideways to overlap then the organisation can’t work properly.

T-shaped leadership

The term "T-shaped" describes people who possess deep capabilities in a core function (the vertical part of the T), with broad capacities in diverse areas (the horizontal part of the T).

While leadership is often seen as a vertical progression of mastery, it is equally important for leaders to seek experiences that would widen their horizons, challenge their perspectives, and develop greater agility.

In every organisation there are a few individuals who naturally embody these ‘T’-capabilities – the informal ‘networkers’ who know how to create shared objectives and get others to buy-in to them, develop mutually beneficial relationships founded on reciprocity, and can corral information and mobilise resources without ‘formal’ control. I suspect that these are individuals who are more likely to be open and comfortable with harnessing the power of social media too, rather than those who are nervous and apprehensive about it (see Leaders and social media: a question of fight or flight?).

In most larger organizations, much of the work really gets done through these ‘informal’ relationships, rather than through the ‘formal’ structures. Looking through a leadership lens, this is where developing a compelling leadership brand that directly links to the organizational brand can really help differentiate and enable impressive outcomes – and here’s why: because a leadership brand is about the collective – ie what the leadership within an organisation wants to be known for. It enables the "whole" to be more than "the sum of its parts" and critical to this is overcoming a silo-mentality and demonstrating more joined-up thinking.

In reality this shouldn’t be as hard as it sounds… much of it is actually down to openly communicating with your peers and colleagues and it starts at the top by demonstrating, instilling and developing joined-up behaviours. So leaders should:

–   Have the right attitude and believe that a job has two responsibilities – to achieve high performance in their own department and to contribute to other departments’ performance.

–   Know their own area. The vertical part of the T is the area of their department’s expertise.

–   Know about other areas. For instance, if you’re an engineer, you should know a little about marketing and sales or you won’t contribute effectively.

–   Have the right networks. Build effective interpersonal contacts with diverse colleagues and people outside your company. Be persuasive, influencing people with the power of rank or finances.

In the past leaders could depend upon the notion that if they succeeded within their own fields of interests that they could be assured of success. That expectation is changing. Both individual and collective goals are now rewarded and teamwork and collaboration and an openness and commitment to working interdependently is the key to making this happen.

So, the future should be T-shaped. Shouldn’t it?