Becoming a leader

By Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove

I remember how weird it felt when I first became a fire captain, after almost twelve years of being a front-line firefighter. I didn’t completely understand the root of these feelings but I quickly learned that as a captain the funny sarcastic remark I would make to another firefighter as their peer was now taken in a much different way. Although I didn’t feel I had changed, in the minds of my crew I was indeed different – I was their leader. When I became a battalion chief, I noticed that these feelings returned but this time at a much deeper level. As I explored these feelings, I recognized that what I was feeling was a lack of confidence, a feeling of being an actor (a firefighter dressed in a chief ’s cloak), a feeling of inadequacy.

So says Scott Peltin, co-author of Sink, Float, or Swim and chief performance officer at Tignum, who held leading positions in the US fire service for twenty-five years.

Careers develop and the leaps are often demanding, sometimes perilous. Leadership transitions – from general management to senior management and from there to leadership – are fraught with pitfalls.

There is a brilliant Dilbert cartoon in which the eponymous hero contemplates such a transition:
‘Now that I’m CEO, what am I supposed to actually do?’ The answer is quick: ‘You’re supposed to make superficial statements about how good the company is, then hope something lucky happens and profits go up. It’s called leadership, sir.’

In their work, Andrew and Nada Kakabadse identify three critical transitions. The first is appointment to a general management role.

‘The individual no longer holds an operational role requiring the exercise of functional skills and service delivery excellence. Organizational systems and processes need to be innovatively integrated for high-quality delivery of goods/services to the market. The learning in this transition is: respect organizational processes and cross-departmental teamwork,’ they counsel.

The next transition occurs when a high performing general manager is appointed to a top team role. This is how the Kakabadses explain this leap:

The demand is for a higher-order level of intellect in order to design value adding strategy within dynamic market conditions, while displaying sensitive stakeholder engagement skills. Emotional and political intelligence is necessary to have a spread of actors identify with the vision/strategy. From making organizational processes more efficient, the individual has to reconsider the purpose and, in turn, the design of the organization.

The learning in this transition is from making the value proposition of the enterprise work to redefining the value proposition of the firm. The challenge is to mold a harmonious team from individuals who may have previously pursued their own agendas. This demands clear thinking and a sensitive handling of powerful egos. In effect, being independently minded, putting forward a coherent argument and yet being a team player displaying “mountains” of wisdom, are fundamental aspects of learning to negotiate through the second transition.

The final transition is when a successful CEO or Senior Vice President is offered a position on the board. Andrew and Nada Kakabadse explain:

The key development in Transition 3 is from taking charge and driving strategy forward to scrutinizing strategy and the sensitive facilitation of relationships. In so doing, senior management need to be facilitated to “own” the governance challenges facing the enterprise and thus work in partnership with the board so that in-novative governance becomes a daily discipline. The prime task is to spot the vulnerabilities facing the organization and to convince others that action needs to be taken and then monitor how that action is applied. Designing governance protocols that work and influencing from a distance, are the core skills of Transition 3. So too is leaving one’s ego at home.

For over twenty years, Linda Hill of Harvard Business School has studied people moving into leadership positions, particularly high potential talent moving into management for the first time. Her early research followed a small number of managers over the course of the first year in leadership position. The results formed part of her 1992 book Becoming a Manager.

Over the years Hill observed the challenge of that first leadership position becoming ever more difficult. One of the reasons people find the transition challenging, says Hill, is because of a number of misconceptions they have about the role. New leaders assume that they will have a lot of authority and power and be able to exercise that freely. In fact, they often find that they are constrained because of all the connections and relationships that they need to deal with in order to do their job as leader. The sooner that they learn to manage those networked relationships, the sooner they will get to grips with their new role.

The people we have spoken to have frequently echoed Linda Hill’s findings. Leaders often feel powerless. Sometimes they are. Organizations switch to autopilot and carry on regardless of what the leader would like to happen. We have witnessed this happening in organizations.

Leadership is not power.

Another myth is that authority naturally flows from the leadership position. Direct reports do what they are told because the leader told them to. Leaders soon discover this is not the case in reality. (This is still largely the case in Japan where saying ‘no’ to your boss is unheard of.) Instead, says Linda Hill, the new leader needs to demonstrate character, the intention to do the right thing, and competence in their new role, which does not have to be technical prowess but might as easily be a willingness to ask questions and to listen. Plus they need to show they can use the influence that comes from their connections within the organization.

Showing the team who’s boss immediately they arrive in a new position is a common mistake new leaders make. Compliance and control, exercised through formal power, will not prove effective for long. Better to share power and influence than order, says Hill. Equally managing one to one is useful, but new leaders need to create a team atmosphere, and build a collaborative, team-driven context for individuals to operate within.

Finally, new leaders need to create the conditions for success for their team. This means sticking up for their team, and using their power and influence to further the interests of the group.


Linda A. Hill, ‘Becoming the Boss’, Harvard Business Review, January 2007.
Andrew and Nada Kakabadse’s work can be found at

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