Have you ever given much thought to your leadership style? Maybe you’ve been exposed to management studies on the topic, or even taken an assessment. But have you ever wondered what accounts for your leadership style? Have you ever wondered if it’s fairly innate vs. acquired, to what degree you can change it, and if it has much bearing on your bottom line? 

At Pivot International, our executive team brings more than 250 years of combined leadership experience. At all levels of management, we understand that leadership is about so much more than how we run our organization and manage our teams — it’s also about ensuring that clients successfully capitalize on opportunity. (Especially in times of sourcing instability, market volatility, and techno-economic inflection points.) 

As a global one-source leader to companies worldwide, we provide advanced DFM expertise that spans fourteen industries, agile supply chain solutions, and 320,000 square feet of flexible manufacturing space across three continents. We help companies manage risk, defy disruption, drive innovation, and scale globally. To do this, we believe that successfully navigating complex market and geo-political landscapes depends on complex leadership styles — leadership styles that have been extensively studied by Harvard Leadership Professor and global Fortune 500 consultant William R. Torbert.

Torbert’s research reveals that an individual’s leadership style has little to do with their temperament or preferred way of doing things. Instead, it has much more to do with deeply held (and generally unquestioned) assumptions about how the world works. In this sense, Torbert’s work shows how an individual’s leadership “style” is better understood as one of seven “action logics.” These action logics can also be understood as “operating systems” (OS) that span a spectrum from least complex to most complex and resourceful. Although their names have changed throughout the years, Torbert originally identified these operating systems by the following descriptors. 

  • Opportunist
  • Diplomat
  • Expert
  • Achiever
  • Individualist
  • Strategist
  • Alchemist

Fascinatingly, each leadership OS transcends yet includes the strengths of the prior OS while overcoming its weaknesses. (By analogy, “leveling up” your leadership OS is akin to the process seen in human development where children go from crawling to walking. Walking transcends yet includes the capacity to crawl while overcoming its limitations.) In other words, each OS is developmental (unfolds in a fixed, hierarchical sequence) and capable of being developed.

This last point is essential. Decades of research conducted with thousands of leaders — including those at Deutsche Bank, Hewlett-Packard, Trillium Asset Management, Volvo, and more — demonstrate that a leader’s performance is directly linked to their level of leadership OS. Notably, Torbert found that corporate leaders with the first three operating systems (Opportunist, Diplomat, and Expert, comprising 55% of the study) significantly under-performed the Achiever OS (including 30% of the study). And only the remaining 15% of leaders in the sample (Individualist, Strategist, and Alchemist OS) evidenced a consistent capacity to manage complex risk, defy disruption, drive innovation, and scale globally.    

Let’s take a look at the seven leadership operating systems to learn about the deeply held assumptions that underlie them, as well as their characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses. Keep in mind that while you may exhibit traits from multiple operating systems, only one of them will constitute your “home base.” 

Opportunist (about 5% of corporate leaders)

Deeply Held Assumption: It’s a dog-eat-dog world. “A sucker born every day.” Survival of the fittest. Take no prisoners. To the victor, the spoils. 

Characteristics: Focuses on personal wins at all costs, seeks to control others, and does not hesitate to profit at others’ expense.  

Strengths: Single-minded pursuit of short-term objectives. Brute, unflinching force of will to overcome formidable obstacles. 

Weaknesses: A “blunt” instrument. Insistence on autocratic control precludes genuine teamwork, little capacity for long-term planning. 

Diplomat (about 12% of corporate leaders) 

Deeply Held Assumption: Success is achieved by dutifully performing roles prescribed by those holding power in order to gain favor and advance one’s position. 

Characteristics: Highly rule-bound. Sense of self is strongly tied to group identity and norms. Tends to look to others for cues for action. 

Strengths: A “loyal soldier” performs to the letter, is mindful of teammates’ needs, provides “social glue” within the organization.

Weaknesses: “Awaits orders,” hesitant to take the lead, goes out of the way to avoid conflict. (Unwilling to “rock the boat.”)  

Expert (38% of corporate leaders)

Deeply Held Assumption: “Facts, not feelings.” Expertise backed up by hard data is the only reliable source for assessing situations and making sound decisions.   

Characteristics: Highly analytical, numbers-driven, efficiency-focused — believes all significant problems can be solved with specialized expertise.  

Strengths: Strong individual contributor, helps to safeguard against “squishy” reasoning, pursues constant improvement and efficiency. 

Weaknesses: “Everything looks like a nail,” tends to defend against disconfirming data, confuses the map with the territory, blind to implications of qualitative variables.   

Achiever (30% of corporate leaders)

Deeply Held Assumption: Success is defined by peak performance, elite achievement, and high social status. Life is approached as a competition. (“You’re only as good as your last game.”)

Characteristics: Hyper-competitive, dominant player, relentlessly driven, laser-focused, high levels of mental and emotional stamina.

Strengths: Develops winning strategies, integrates immediate and long-term objectives, balances challenge and support. (“Sports coach” mindset.) 

Weaknesses: Vulnerable to missing the forest for the trees (blind to most externalities). Tendency to have unreasonable expectations of others and to be unduly critical. 

Individualist (10% of corporate leaders)

Deeply Held Assumption: Success must be redefined on one’s own terms using a plurality of strategically integrated perspectives, values, and approaches. 

Characteristics: “Self-authoring,” strong internal compass, seeks to reconcile idealistic vision with organizational realities and growth objectives. Makes seemingly “maverick” ideas successfully fly. 

Strengths: Captain of their own ship, systems thinker, flexible, innovative, collaborative, strategically “improvisational,” knows how to “break the rules properly.” (Unfettered by convention). 

Weaknesses: “Wild card.” Idealistic vision may be a case of “reach exceeding grasp.” Can be perceived (sometimes accurately ) as “going rogue.”  

Strategist (4% of corporate leaders) 

Deeply Held Assumption: The world is a complex interplay of relationships across multiple scales that can be strategically reconfigured in the service of growth.  

Characteristics: Meta-systems thinker (sees systems of systems), “sees around corners,” sees meaningful connections between quantitative and qualitative variables, builds bridges, forms win-win alliances, rewrites the rules of the game.  

Strengths: At home in high levels of complexity, comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty, grasps non-linearity, plays the long game, transforms the organization.  

Weaknesses: Due to the relative rarity of OS, can be challenging to relate with. Vulnerable to “heroic leader” syndrome, or may succumb to arrogance.   

Alchemist (less than 1% of corporate leaders) 

Deeply Held Assumption: Life is a grand theater of play, possibility, risk, and opportunity to which each person is called to make a contribution on behalf of future generations. 

Characteristics: Lives by eulogy virtues reinvents the game, creates conditions for human flourishing that extend far beyond the organization. Commits to a deeper purpose for which the bottom line is a means rather than the end. Turns “lead” (division, conflict, adversity, failure, etc.) into “gold,” both personally and professionally.   

Strengths: Leads from the future. (Envisions, senses, and shapes emerging possibility spaces, actualizing them through new models and in historically significant and socially beneficial ways ). Dramatically “de-literalized” view of the landscape allows for radical forms of creativity and innovation. Inspires a unifying vision and recruits others to a higher cause without the need for recognition or personal fanfare. 

Weaknesses: Commitment to a deeper mission comes with the risk of excessive self-sacrifice. 

Each of the seven leadership operating systems brings valuable strengths to the table. But only the last three include levels of complexity and flexibility needed for reliably thinking outside the box and implementing effective strategy at scale.

If your company is gearing up to bring a new product to market, we can help. With nearly 50 years of proven experience, an internationally award-winning product portfolio, an extensive suite of leading-edge technologies, and a highly collaborative approach, we’re the partner you’ve been looking for. Contact us today to learn more about how we can partner with your business to ensure your success!