The Darwinian Leadership Trap


An anticipated shortage in access to high-quality leadership talent is driving an increased focus on internal leadership pipelines. During the financial crisis, marketing investments and investment in talent development were significantly reduced, which has now resulted in a global leadership deficit. Consequently, post-crisis internal leadership pipelines have not developed nearly to the extent that would satisfy the growing demand for strong leadership talent going forward. For some reason, talent development is seldom viewed as integral to the business strategy, but as part of human resources.

Due to the imminent talent shortage, companies across the globe are starting to integrate talent development into their corporate and business strategies with the objective of improving internal leadership and high performer pipelines, thus, improving their leadership base. In the book The Leadership Pipeline, Charan et al. described up to six career steps or passages that an executive will pass through while moving up the leadership hierarchy. Each career step is a major life-changing event of a leader and cannot be mastered in a day or two or by taking leadership courses. The below model depicts the various career gates/levels in a traditional hierarchy and the career steps one must take when transitioning from one career gate to another. In essence, it depicts the hierarchy of work in most companies — even for most small companies as they become successful.

As visualized, each career step is triggered by the executive passing from one leadership gate to the next, which encompasses a completely new set of leadership competencies. In fact, each individual career step immediately invokes a performance gap because the candidate moving up to the next career level/gate does not possess the required skills, competencies and experience in order to succeed at the new level. As a result, the candidate is not immediately capable of delivering results, thus, for example, coaching, guidance and perhaps even training are required to make the candidate decision-making competent. Awareness about the challenges inherent in each career step will help disclose leadership traps at every organizational layer and potentially help transitioning leaders navigating and avoiding the most obvious traps. To successfully transition to the next leadership gate/level, the executive must, therefore, be prepared to take various steps to accelerate his/her learning and to acquire a whole new way of leading and managing. We term these leadership transition steps leadership transition accelerators, and they encompass:

  • Acquisition of new leadership skills — new leadership competencies are required to successfully perform at the new leadership gate/level, (e.g., communication skills, situational leadership skills).

  • Expanding level management navigation — new competencies are required to successfully cross individual levels of management (i.e., operational, tactical and strategic).

  • Building value chain understanding — new competencies are required to successfully build a broader value chain understanding, (e.g., from functional to business and from group to enterprise).

  • Grow stakeholder management platforms — new competencies are required to successfully identify, segment, target and interact with the new set of stakeholders that will invariably surround a new leadership gate/level.

  • Time management — executives need to focus on time management, making sure that time allocated to themselves and their employees match the key priorities (Kaplan, 2005). The keyword in this regard is focus, as it is essentially a lack of focus that potentially becomes a key obstacle to success—not a lack of time. Unfortunately, the higher the leadership level, the more complex it becomes to focus.

The key to a successful transition from one leadership gate/level to the next rests in the ability of the transitioning executive to learn and integrate the new leadership skills required, cross to the appropriate level of management, expand value chain understanding, undertake appropriate time management, and to grow stakeholder management platforms—in accordance with the new leadership gate/level. However, often leaders moving up the leadership hierarchy receive little or no support in this transition. We have seen leaders fail in transitioning from one gate/level to the next — and within six months going from holding top performer ratings in the prior career gate/level to struggling with low performer ratings in the new career gate/level.

Feelings of incompetence, confusion and vulnerability are often connected with leaders transitioning into new roles. In an unconscious re-enforcement of their self-worth and self-esteem, executives begin to drift towards areas where they feel competent, which leave them open for gaps in the required skills and competencies etc. It is our assertion, that these leaders very well could have succeeded in their transitions had they received the proper support, coaching and tools from their line manager, HR and other key stakeholders. As Michael Watkins writes in his book “First 90 days,” there is a sort of Darwinian sink-or-swim managerial culture in most companies today in the sense that

"...promising managers are thrown into the deep end of the pool to test their evolutionary fitness for advancement. The swimmers are deemed to have high potential, and the sinkers…sink.”

In these organizations, the learning aspect of transitions is not in focus. Consequently, lessons learned by younger managers will often not equip them for the next level, and they make early mistakes and drown. Others swim, but only because they end up in the right kind of position or have received the right level of onboarding support.

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