Leadership In At The Deep End

Deep End

A great deal of my work is with so-called ‘experienced’ managers. The use of the word experience in this context is not meant to infer capability, merely the number of years in a managerial role.

There is a big difference.

Experience isn’t the same as exposure. Just because you were there, doesn’t mean you were aware.

Diminish Effort, Diminishing Return

I have found that the higher people climb the ladder of management, the less coaching and development they seem to receive. The dismissive and pejorative term ‘soft skills’ is used to consign vital management skills to optional ‘nice-to-haves’, and the presumption is that the ‘hard’ technical skills are already in place.

We shouldn’t be so surprised when so many of them slip and stumble, or appear ill-suited to the responsibilities they hold. These are the people who time forgot.

Learning & Development passed them by and now they are in role, they are expected to perform unaided.

The expectation is that once you wear the badge of office and have the name plate on the door, you are a fully-fledged manager, despite the fact that no-one has taught you how to spread your wings. It’s no wonder so many end up in a flap.

The Expectation Game

All Leaders are having a tough deal at the moment.

These difficulties are:

  • Encountering totally new business pressures
  • Struggling to match ever-increasing expectations
  • Trying to provide stability in a world that never stands still
  • Having to learn new rules of the game
  • Create new rules that allow them to stay in the game
  • Attempting to keep employees engaged, energised and effective
  • Having to navigate through turbulent and unpredictable global events
  • Constantly trying to deliver more with less

And, to make things worse, they are largely doing this alone…

Yet we are very quick to blame them when they fail to live up to our expectations, even though we almost guaranteed their failure the day we appointed them.

Sailing the Leader Ship

With so many companies struggling to stay afloat, and employees reporting that they routinely feel cast adrift, we have to ask …“Is our Leadership sea-worthy, or is it more like the Titantic?” and what are we really doing to leaders their sea legs?

It doesn’t seem to matter what level I work with; managers are struggling whether they are at the top of the tree or just starting their ascent up the trunk. If anything, some of the worst examples of incompetence are displayed at the highest level – not so much being ‘out of their depth’ as being ‘high as a kite!’

It strikes me that we haven’t really served these people well. We’ve thrown them in at the deep end without a life raft.

Cookie Cutter Leadership

Some get sent of standard Leadership or Management Development programmes, but these only produce ‘standard leaders and managers’…if they’re lucky! And it isn’t standard leaders we need. Generic leadership programmes typically fail to address the specific and unique challenges that leaders face: and the results are plain to see.

The world is awash with theory, literature, and talk about leadership.

But what really counts is this:

Do YOU have the types of leader that will help YOU deliver YOUR organisational vision?”

Creating Faux Leaders

Many people are appointed to management and senior management roles without a full appreciation of their personal strengths and qualities, or a detailed understanding of the requirements of the role.

Most are appointed because of technical brilliance which is no longer required in the elevated role. The result is that new managers and leaders are left floundering; desperately trying to protect their reputation, uphold their credibility and authority, and deliver results with their hands tied behind their back.

For many, there seems no option other than to play an elaborate game of bluff through to retirement.

Finding a Better Way

We have to find ways to serve our leaders better if we want them to serve us well. We have to persuade leaders that it is in their best interest to embrace on-going personal and professional development.

And we have to ensure that what we provide by way of development is fit for purpose, focused on helping them navigate their way skilfully through and around the unique challenges they face; and available at the point of need.

Without this sea-change in the way we support, educate, develop and coach our leaders, we’re going to find more holes appearing in our leader-ship.


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Learn, Grow & Develop Other Leaders

Tim Lambert
Tim Lambert
 is CEO of Kay-Lambert Associates Limited

He is a professional leadership coach working with groups and individuals
Email | LinkedIn | Twitter | Web | Blog | Skype: timlambertkla

Image Source: theoasischurch.com

L2L Contributing Author


  1. Dave Mohn on April 8, 2013 at 5:25 pm

    Oh so true in many cases! Many people are promoted up when they are good at their current position but the the next level. When they don’t have the people skills or strategic mind set they often pass their failures on to their subordiantes.

  2. williamjameslew on April 8, 2013 at 5:32 pm

    Tim, you describe a community awash with high flying kites and cookie-cutter incompetents which you flood the marketplace apparently ongoing and steeped in tradition. I find this worrying, too say the least, and wonder if one should not look closer at one’s own implication and complicity in this rampant nightmare.

    Wonderfully thought-provoking and grievously disturbing.

  3. Jeffrey Seymour on April 9, 2013 at 1:58 pm

    I think the heart of the matter is organizations investing in their people, but more importantly, knowing who is a worthy investment. Many organizations talk about investing in their people, but not may follow through consistently. I don’t think it’s as much about know-how as much as it is about becoming a better person with the correct motives. I was recently hired into my first managerial position, and I’ve discovered that my employer and my supervisor are really committed to making me a better manager/person. It amazes me that companies don’t see the connection between investing in people and the increase in productivity – and not just a once-a-year investment, but a continual relational process.

  4. Doug Ramsey on April 10, 2013 at 12:37 pm

    A very nice post, one that resonates with my experience in working with C-level executives. Here is my take. Hiring and promotion responsibilities have not (generally speaking) achieved sustained excellence in practice. There is still too much subjectivity around the technical skills with limited attention to people and value compatibility issues. Likeability continues as a strong bias in the people process. Not sure, this will change very much. Professional development has been plagued by superficial offerings, full of gimmicks, flavor of the day programs and missing integral designs, deep learning experiences, and effective reinforcing mechanisms. That said, I think it is a mistake to rely on the company to prepare you for leadership and executive advancement. They simply do not know how and only a small percentage truly cares because doing it right is very hard.

    One answer to this dilemma is for those courageous souls who are pursuing top leadership positions driven by values of service, making a meaningful difference, and advancing the profession, is to accept that they must take complete and absolute responsibility for their own growth and development. Especially in areas of consciousness growth, emotional intelligence, and the development of the authentic self. This self work involves interior growth, ego and shadow work and discovering what really matters among other growth areas. This is the real path leading to the deep end. Allowing us to bring our highest self to our life and work every day. Or, as Dr. Kopp puts it, “The most important things, each man (woman) must do for himself. My opinion and I could be wrong

  5. Steve Riddle on April 13, 2013 at 6:32 pm

    A great post that reflects the reality of leadership in many organisations today. Recent studies show that more than half of employee groups are disengaged, strongly related to our ability as leaders to influence culture and develop people as individuals.

    The opening statement is very accurate in my experience – “I have found that the higher people climb the ladder of management, the less coaching and development they seem to receive. The dismissive and pejorative term ‘soft skills’ is used to consign vital management skills to optional ‘nice-to-haves’, and the presumption is that the ‘hard’ technical skills are already in place. We shouldn’t be so surprised when so many of them slip and stumble, or appear ill-suited to the responsibilities they hold. These are the people who time forgot.” Brilliant!

    Most often denial, fear and ego drive this need to accept the level of leadership provided by senior leaders. I have actually had some state that “I would not be in this position, if I didn’t have the skills!” which is clearly disappointing. I do not actually think that most people in this position actually believe these types of statements, however feel the need to justify and contend that the issues either don’t exist or don’t sit with the leader. If not with the senior leader, then I wonder whom?