What Makes Leaders Succeed?

Another explanation, however, is that leadership is not a static set of teachable skills, competencies or behaviors, and that development efforts premised on a static model are ill-conceived. A good deal of research has shown, and practical experience confirms, that what makes an effective manager varies dramatically depending upon managerial level. So when the only constant among managerial challenges is change, the only competencies that count across the board are agility and adaptability, and that is where development efforts should be focused.

In “Testing the Leadership Pipeline,”* a paper forthcoming in The Leadership Quarterly, four researchers have taken a quantitative, analytical approach to the question of what constitutes the right stuff at each managerial level. Their goal is to help organizations predict effectiveness and translate that effectiveness as the manager rises to succeeding levels.

Analyzing the performance of 2,175 managers, researchers Robert B. Kaiser, S. Bartholomew Craig, Darren Overfield and Preston Yarborough identified seven facets of managerial behavior that were strong predictors of effectiveness at various managerial levels: learning agility, directive leadership, empowering leadership, supportive leadership, work-life balance, abrasiveness and lack of follow-through. But the researchers also found that these factors played very different roles in performance, depending upon which managerial level was being studied.

At the executive level, for example, directive leadership actually played a negative role. Empowering leadership is what is required at this level. Although a top-down, commandand- control approach proved to be counterproductive, neither supportiveness nor abrasiveness differentiated the effectiveness of executives at this level. That is, interpersonal skills are not as important at the top as they are at other managerial levels. Interestingly, work-life balance proved to correlate negatively with effectiveness, confirming what most executives already assume: anything less than full devotion to the job may compromise results.

For middle managers, whose primary role is sharing information throughout the organization to build support for change initiatives, interpersonal skills are of primary importance. Supportive leadership is a crucial factor and abrasiveness is a fatal flaw. Unlike their superiors, middle managers thrive when they display directive behavior, while demonstrating empowering leadership is of less importance.

At the supervisor’s level, the only positive predictor of success, beyond learning agility, is work-life balance. This finding may reflect the primary importance of mastering defined skills and setting limited goals at this level. Being extremely supportive, or abrasive, are counterproductive at this level, suggesting that to be most effective, supervisors should maintain a distance from rank-and-file employees.

So what are the practical implications of these observations? If your goal is enhanced effectiveness at all managerial levels of your organization, your development efforts should not be aimed at cultivating specific competencies. Instead, they should focus on identifying versatile, adaptable candidates. As Kaiser et al. write, “Learning and adaptability appear to be metacompetencies — general capabilities that enable the development of more specific competencies. Learning seems to represent the cognitive side of the equation, whereas adaptability suggests the behavioural aspect.”

Talent Acquisition

Certain psychological assessments can help identify individuals with learning and adaptability strengths. A flexible, learning orientation is also indicated by a history of responding well to feedback and coaching, prior success in a variety of jobs and roles and an ability to gracefully handle mistakes and failures while extracting key lessons. Observing how individuals respond to assignments that require new capabilities is also revealing.

Talent Selection and Succession

Managers are often promoted on the basis of their performance, but past performance by itself can not predict performance at a new level. Ironically, a history of success at lower levels often works against freshly minted executives. Newly appointed executives must reinvent their leadership styles; they must shed tendencies to micromanage, learn to build a team and develop confidence in assuming wider responsibilities. Selection committees need to examine untested areas of competence and ask, for example, whether a successful directive middle manager could empower her staff if she moved into the executive suite.

Transition Management

Most derailments occur because of the sinkor-swim mentality that pervades during many transitions. Companies like American Express and Pfizer, however, have increased their success rates by taking an active role in managing promotions. Best practices include creating a transition plan that identifies the unique demands and key risk factors of the new role and closely monitors how the transition is going. Smooth transitions are also facilitated by support mechanisms such as mentoring and feedback. Companies are also finding transition coaching helpful.


Just as there is no one formula for a successful leader, there is no single recipe for how to select and initiate new executives. The one principle that seems to apply to any leadership transition is that those who have a proven ability to adapt to changing demands are most likely to succeed.


*Robert B. Kaiser is a partner with the executive development and research consultancy Kaplan DeVries Inc. and is co-author, with Bob Kaplan, of The Versatile Leader (Pfeiffer, 2006). S. Bartholomew Craig is an associate professor of psychology at North Carolina State University and an adjunct research scientist with Kaplan DeVries Inc. Darren Overfield is a senior consultant with Kaplan DeVries Inc. Preston Yarborough is the assistant director of leadership at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. rkaiser@kaplandevries.com.