Matrix Leadership

Matrix Leadership

Research from the Hay Group has long focused on leadership competencies – in both for profit and non-profit settings. Whether leading a church, a company, a private school, or hospital, you are likely to need matrix-type leadership skills.

That’s because all these settings have 2 things in common:

  1. Specific leadership responsibilities within an area of expertise (sales, men’s ministry, customer service)
  2. The need to bring that expertise across the organization in a cross-functional setting.

Working with a complex, 2000-member church I have seen the need for senior leaders to have these skills. Consulting with a $100 million business with 400 employees, and guiding a leadership team at an urban non-profit, I witnessed the same challenges and needs.

So here is the question:

How do we lead people in non-hierarchical structures to accomplish personal and organizational goals?

Four Competencies

The Hay research identifies 4 competencies specifically needed in matrix settings:


The ability to identify with the perspectives and insights of others who hold different views

Conflict Management:

The ability to resolve issues and relational breakdown in mutually beneficial ways, aligned with institutional outcomes


The ability to lead people when you do not have direct-line authority or supervision


Having enough personal insight to recognize when and how to engage others, manage emotions and understand personal strengths and weaknesses

(For more information on this kind of research see

Sounds good. But there is only one problem. The researchers found these competencies greatly lacking in many leaders, especially men. The percentage of leaders in the survey who demonstrated each competency are listed below:

  • Empathy: 22%
  • Conflict Management: 31%
  • Influence: 20%
  • Self-awareness: 9%

With so few leaders who are self-aware of their own abilities and relational capacities (or lack thereof), and lacking in influence and empathy, it is no wonder that matrix management approaches are difficult.

Acquiring New Skills

So how do we help leaders acquire some of these skills and manage the complexities associate with complex structures?

They suggest developing leaders by:

  • Placing them in diverse groups with people who share a variety of perspectives and opinions
  • Allowing them to shadow experienced leaders to expose them to new leadership worlds and diverse leadership styles
  • Providing a variety of leadership experiences where emerging leaders can lead (or share leadership) in areas outside their immediate skill sets and expertise

This makes sense, thought the pressures of day-to-day leadership will mitigate against it. Taking someone off-line from their normal responsibilities will require senior leaders to flex a bit, recognize short-term productivity losses or delays, and allow these leaders to fail along the way.

This takes time in the short run but has huge long-term payouts, if we are patient and willing to learn.

That is the challenge for go-getter, type-A “what’s next?” leaders. Development takes time.

But you either take the time to build the skills, or you take the time to clean up the matrix mess you will have with incompetent leaders managing complex situations. I can guarantee you want to spend the time on development rather than perpetual high-maintenance clean up activity.

Four Warnings

Be wary of idealizing the matrix approach. It is no panacea. In addition to the skills needed to lead within AND across an organization, there are some things to watch for. Ruth Malloy, a managing director at the Hay Group in Boston offers these insights.

1)     Identify competency gaps and correct them.

Know your weaknesses in leadership, especially in the four areas above. How self-aware am I? When can I use influence and how? Doing this as a team is a vital exercise.

2)     Don’t “pull rank” to solve an issue.

It is a temptation as a supervisor to use your authority to fix the problem or get your way. This short-circuits the process, stunts leader development and destroys trust. Let the process work.

3)     Deal with emotionally-charged issues face-to-face, not through email.

I have seen this so many times it makes me want to cringe. As I worked with leadership teams and groups it is amazing that even teams that meet regularly will use email to engage an emotional issue. It is a community-killer and team-breaker.

4)     Don’t take problems directly to the top (to the CEO or Senior Manager or Senior Pastor.)

Most of the time this backfires. Running to Big Brother to try to leverage his/her positional authority shows how desperate and ineffective you are at leading. Work the problem together and don’t play power games.

Taking Stock of Things

So today I am taking stock. I think I am good at empathy and strong in conflict management, but need to leverage my influence (I often underestimate it) and grow in self-awareness.

So I need to do some ruthless and honest work, asking those close to me this:

“How do you experience me, where do I make my best contribution, and how can I better understand what you need from me?”

Matrix management sounds cool and trendy. It is both. And it is effective, but only for those willing to do the work.

What are your competencies? How can you and your team grow? When will you take this research and discuss it as a team so you can move forward?


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Learn, Grow & Develop Other Leaders

Dr. Bill Donahue
Dr. Bill Donahue is President of LeaderSync Group, Inc

Bill is a professor at TIU and a Leadership Speaker and Consultant
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5 responses to “Matrix Leadership

  1. Really great to learn about Matrix Leadership here, surprisingly it’s been something I have carried like an attitude all this years. And still practicing with our team at Y4C. When we started the team we resolved to help everyone learn in the job and settle our differences when the need comes. Thanks for the post.


    • Great to hear! Sounds like Y4C is thriving as a result. I have found this thinking helpful as both a reminder and something to affirm I am not crazy!


  2. How do you see the 3rd warning applying to work from home situations where a leader may be in a different geographical location? Sykpe?


    • Yes – Skype or phone – the key is to have a live dialogue where you can hear and feel the emotions, clarify issues as they arise, head off misunderstandings, and so on. I have done this by phone and it works. The person had to leave town for 2 weeks and we really had to face the issue. But once we write it down, it is permanent and you cannot say “oh, I did not mean it that way” so easily. – thanks for the comment!


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