Stuart White 26-11-2021 10:40 AM



We have a major problem with our approach and effort to workplace leadership succession.  If that sentence does no give you immediate pause for thought, you may be part of the problem!  Let’s unpack it.

There are a number of glaring issues.  First off, talent is not successfully developed to the next level. I see endless numbers of ‘not quite ready’, ‘half-baked’ leaders stuck in the bottleneck of no man’s land; or ‘not-quite-there-yet’, where they must remain, hoping for a miracle breakthrough; or that they simply get the leadership job because of recruitment fatigue meaning they are promoted because of good behaviour and having done the time in that gridlocked waiting room.  We need to get this right!

The answer lies in understanding our approach to leadership development and why it fails us. Research by Avilo and Luthens two decades ago concluded that “Leadership development work” has been “based on a deficit-reduction model strategy, where one discovered what was wrong with a leader and then worked to correct deficits in terms of focusing on the leader’s development”.  I see this every day. We put leadership development candidates through assessment centres or psychometric tests or review the results of their performance appraisals, to establish what’s missing and then from here we aim to fix it by creating a development plan. And what, you may ask, is wrong with that especially as we have been doing it like that since the 1970s? 

Quite simply it’s this focus on weaknesses to fix, rather than the developing the strengths we already have and can act on, which is the problem. Author Marcus Buckingham puts it brilliantly in his book ‘Now Discover Your Strengths’ when he asked parents which grades they would focus on when their kids bring home their report card if it showed an A in English, an A in Social Studies, a C in Biology and an F in Algebra. Most of the parents (77%) said they would focus on the F in Algebra. This illustrates how we are so used to honing in on our weaknesses since the very beginning of our learning journey. There is a common belief that we have got to fill the gap. Otherwise, we will be weaker. It's the idea that only if weaknesses could be corrected, we could be fixed and feel complete!

Several years ago, I read for a masters in Positive Psychology which resulted in a huge paradigm shift as it flipped my thinking from this ‘fix it’ approach to a more ‘build, broaden and strength-based’ mind-set. Most often, the science focuses on curing mental illness and eliminating negative feelings while positive psychology focuses on human thoughts, feelings, and behaviour, highlighting the good in life instead of focusing on and repairing the bad. In short, it is the study of personal strengths and an optimistic approach.  ‘Happiness’ or ‘the good life’ are terms often used to describe the study which looks at such things as character strengths, life satisfaction, passion and purpose, wellbeing, gratitude, compassion, self-confidence, hope, optimism etc., all of which have been making their way into leadership thinking because, in the crudest terms, happy folk create more, do more, enjoy more, are more creative, interested, and so we continue ad infinitum. On the other hand, unhappy people suck!

Don’t think happiness is not a science. Despite the word conjuring up images of smiling emojis, heart-shaped hand gestures, dancing pixies or something equally flippant, there has been significant research on strength-based approaches in the workplace. One study found that employees feel more confident, self-aware and productive when focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses. In turn, this leads to higher employee engagement, increased performance and significantly lower attrition rates.

If we are approaching leadership development from a place of weakness it’s bound to create a feeling of ‘I’m not good (or competent) enough’,   which boundless research proves invites other negative emotions, like anger, fear and anxiety.  These  do not help us to get motivated or boost our creativity so that we can better think of solutions to the problems that we face. And let’s face it how effective is an anxious, angry, insecure leader not to mention the damage they can do? What we are doing and have done, is made weaknesses the centre of our attention from an early age at home and school and consciously or subconsciously it continues at work and in every part of our lives. This outdated thinking is carried forward into our approach in leadership, rather than giving over some of that space to strengths and other matters of positivism.

About 6 years ago I started leadership coaching - mostly new leaders or those in management aspiring for higher roles. I thought that I would be coaching leaders on HOW to lead but for the most part I was instead dealing with thinking errors, limiting beliefs, fear of failure and self-confidence – that comes up a lot - “ability to be certain about one’s competencies and skills” which includes a sense of self-esteem and self-assurance and the belief that one can make a difference”.

Now this wasn’t a complete surprise to me as years ago I did a Ted Talk about the lessons from the Inner Game of Tennis a book written by Tim Gallwey who, as a tennis player and then a coach, was interested in exploring the relationship between what happens in the mind of the player and what happens physically on the court. Gallwey proposed that in every game there was an inner game and outer game. The inner game takes place within the mind of the player against the obstacles of lapse in concentration, nervousness and self-condemnation. It is played to overcome all habits of the mind which inhibit excellence in performance. In a nutshell, for people to maximise their potential they must win both the outer game and the inner game.

So here’s the thing. If we are getting succession so dreadfully wrong, and we are, we need to shift our thinking. We need a fresh approach which will stop us looking for the keys to leadership development where the spotlight currently shines, instead of the dark – as in neglected - side of the issue where we are likely to make significant gains. Our approach needs to be turned upside down and I will tell you how we can do that next week.  And on that tantalising trailer I leave you hanging in suspense!


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Stuart White
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Sesaleteng Seabe
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