All of us can probably identify a scenario where an all-star leader seems to have plateaued. They have shown early promise. They have taken on series of challenging assignments and knocked those opportunities out of the park. They seemed destined for even greater success down the road. Mysteriously, however, something seems to have gone amiss. The energy and drive that characterized past performance is gone and the pace of successful projects undertaken and completed has slowed.
Sometimes we describe this scenario as the "Peter Principle" - somebody keeps getting considered for more challenging opportunities until they succeed in getting a position for which they do not have the requisite skills and abilities.
This may not be a failure of the individual leader but of the organization who hired or promoted them into the opportunity. Was there a realistic assessment of whether the candidate did have the leadership toolkit to succeed at the next level? Or did both parties underestimate the size of the jump, overestimate the candidate's current skills, or neglect to assess the candidate's ability and willingness to learn.
It's this last point that I believe we too often ignore - either for ourselves as leaders or when being evaluated by others for more senior roles. A challenge of success is that it can reinforce a pattern of behavior - it worked before, why wouldn't it work again? In many sectors we do this when promoting technically skilled people to their first management position. They are a great nurse, technician, or carpenter. We then presume that what made them great at that level will allow them to easily move into a role as manger, supervisor or foreman.
Another analogy that we're probably familiar with is that of the tradesperson who is particularly skilled at using a hammer. If you have great skill and success with this one tool, every situation would seem to call for a hammer, until you have a plumbing problem to solve, or need to lay out a concrete foundation and so on. The same holds true for leadership. If you've been recognized and successful by using a limited set of tools the incentive to expand your repertoire is similarly limited. Don't fix it if it isn't broken could be the mantra. In fact, there may be a disincentive to invest in ongoing training, education and learning. After all, there is real cost – and time - associated with new or ongoing learning.
This unwillingness to learn, change and adapt can manifest itself in the form of complacency, defensiveness and even arrogance - don't need it, not me, I'm already great! Regardless of the form it takes, the consequences for an individual leader, and the business unit or organization they lead, can be significant. If remedial action is not taken business opportunities can be missed, competitive threats can be dismissed, and other organizational talent lost. Eventually either the leader or organization - and sometimes both - pay a heavy price.
So how to overcome this Achilles heel of success? First and foremost, is a need for powerful personal humility. I have always believed that the surest path to personal failure and irrelevance as a leader is to believe that all learning is done. This scenario is more untenable today than it has ever been with knowledge, technology and competitive factors seemingly changing daily - or even hourly! If we think we are the experts in something just wait a minute.
Second, today's leaders must recognize that these rapid changes demand reliance on a team of people to succeed. Leadership - particularly at a senior level - is all about getting things accomplished by working with and through others. It is impossible to succeed without tapping into and effectively utilizing the FULL collective knowledge, skills and abilities of the team. A leader these days needs to consider themselves less of a boss and more of a facilitator.
Closely related to this ability to work through others is a readiness to be fully open, and demanding of, honest assessments and feedback from the team and others about what is working and what is not. This willingness to be open to feedback must be truly authentic otherwise followers will quickly realize that their personal success and survival depends on parroting the party line. Moreover, they will likely start looking for ways to distance themselves from any negative fallout if their expectations of failure come to pass. To ensure long-term success, a leader has to be able to hear the good with the bad and see all feedback as an opportunity for further growth.
Finally, a leader needs to continuously and vigorously evaluate their personal toolkit. Just because a certain style, approach, frame of reference, set of assumptions or model worked in a previous position, or last year, or yesterday is no guarantee of success in meeting the next challenge. As a leader you need to be constantly evaluating yourself, your toolkit and your frame of mind. To continue the analogy, you need to be constantly sharpening your saw. And you are going to have be prepared to hear and learn from a number of "instructors" or "tradespeople" along the way - your staff, your peers, colleagues, coaches, and others. They have much to teach you if you are ready to learn.
Don't rest on your laurels. Don't assume that what got you to your current leadership position is going to help you get to the next level - or even keep you where you are. As a leader you need to invest much in your own self-evaluation and redevelopment.
Assess yourself honestly, be open to feedback, and embrace your ongoing development as a leader.