At a certain point in any leadership career, the executive reaches the gap. Similar to mountain climbing without the right equipment, it is an unbridgeable crevasse. All the natural gifts, resources, college networks, family connections, native intellect, personal cleverness or even ability to manipulate and control, heretofore available and applicable, are not enough. The leader simply can no longer produce the same results in an organization which has evolved beyond current competences.
The gap may be a variation on the Peter Principle – “all rise to their level of incompetence”. The leader may collapse in tears, implode, sabotage himself or lash out at others. It is a potent cocktail of frustration, insecurity, impending failure, anger, recrimination, and possibly self-destructive feelings. Baggage from the past, reaching into childhood, condition the leader’s responses and coping mechanisms. Hapless followers may take the brunt of the leader’s failure to mind the gap.
We all reach this gap. And we all need to “mind the gap”.
Despite the potential histrionics and extreme reactions, the answer may be considerably simpler than we think. No matter how low or high the leadership role to which we aspire, it is likely that we cannot absorb the leading and managing knowledge necessary all on our own, or even through osmosis. “Natural” leadership talent and personal charisma are finite in most cases. A good management education, tailored for the gap leader, may bridge the gap. In many cases, leaders received excellent liberal arts educations but couldn’t keep up with their organizations as they rose and faced increasingly complex operations and management challenges. Many do find experiences of management and leadership education if they are intentional enough. And certainly, before the advent of management schools, there were places and initiatives that formally prepared leaders.
A gap leader, however, is one who doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. Whether out of ignorance or denial, aspirations for effectiveness deflate without the right tools.
Gap leaders tend to show up more often in social sector organizations, possibly because business in general, and large corporations in particular, evaluate performance more closely, and realize the necessity to invest in management education. For-profit supervisors recognize a manager at the gap, and ship her off to an MBA program or short course at Harvard.
In the social sector, a new position title itself may be enough to convince a fledgling nonprofit vice-president that he can handle the challenge. [“If I wasn’t competent, they wouldn’t have given me the job. So why am I floundering?”] A myth flourishes in the nonprofit world that good senior leaders pick up everything they need to know on the job. This is especially painful in colleges and universities with competent management faculties, as incompetent presidents, VPs and chief academic officers sniff condescendingly at the knowledge gifts these professors can offer … too practical or vocational. When the university evolves into a toxic organization the reasons become all too clear in the post-mortem. (Peter Drucker once mentioned to me that university administrators rarely if ever asked for his ideas at the places he had worked.)
Numerous circumstances create context for the gap. The leader’s scope of responsibility may change. The scale of the organization may shift. The rate of change faced by the organization may accelerate. Success can expand the organization’s staff and complexity. Often in youth organizations there is an arthritis ceiling, where middle-level executives become “too old” to relate to the kids, but there are too many of them to advance to the next level in the organization. Mass, often forced, emmigration ensues, these leaders reconnoiter the nonprofit scene, but find they face a leadership gap – they don’t have the management knowledge and skills for the next phase of their lives. Ministers in churches face similar challenges. They may be able to “grow” the church to a certain level, but once staff are added and volunteers recruited, the management tasks overwhelm them, and church size stalls.
Any environment where lone rangers initially succeed portends eventual gap leader issues. Founder’s syndrome for entrepreneurs is a common ailment. If a relatively complex organization seems apparently functional with a lone ranger at the head, it is likely that this equilibrium will not last. Lone rangers may have extraordinary personal gifts, twinned with an unhealthy dependency on them. Ultimately, management is always about making knowledge effective primarily through relationships [with people].
The charming leader is a variation on the lone ranger, where results are obtained through relationships alone, neglecting the other leadership tools that make knowledge effective. But the leader who gets results by the sheer force of a winsome personality will also face her day of reckoning. Particularly clever charismatic leaders can sometimes prolong the life of a doomed organization by hiring good managers to support them, in a temporary sense making their own weaknesses irrelevant. Eventually they will have to manage these managers and the inevitable results of the gap leader phenomenon assert themselves.
It is both a crisis of confidence and at the same time an opportunity to move to the next step of contribution.