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Why The 'Hall Pass' Of Leadership Is Undermining Performance

Written by Dave Silberman, Ph.D. - Chief Development Officer at Advanta Genetics and co-founder of Rhythmic Leader Science

While the structured mechanics of business are important, the actual forces that move the business are people. Said differently, how people move is what is important to the business. Critical to the movement of people are those who lead. Yet the glaring prominence of underdevelopment in modern-day organizational leaders exists.

Leader underdevelopment can be defined as a condition reflective of someone highly educated but lacking key development beyond their position title necessary to humanize and harmonize movement in the people they lead. Effective leadership, creating the environment for success and enabling people to do their best work all define leadership performance.

The magnitude of investments by organizations to develop leaders is astonishing and impressive: From 2020 to 2025 increases of over $15 billion have been estimated. The logic of these investments aligns given the correlation of leaders to organizational performance.

Reflectively, two questions arise: If billions are being spent on developing leaders, why is leader underdevelopment so ubiquitous? And, if leaders are indeed important to organizational performance and large-scale investments are being made to enable their contributions to performance, what are we overlooking?

Titles don't lead people, people lead people.

Titles don't lead people, people lead people. Sometimes a person hired for a leadership role is not the person that is needed. Consequently, a leader hired for their technical expertise over anything else could create a mismatch resulting in pressures such as micromanagement, employee burnout and poor performance. When promoted into a leadership role, the leader may enact their responsibilities with a perceived expectation to “lead” others to conform to the specific way they accomplished the technical job prior to promotion. After all, this was their path to success.

Crystallization of leader underdevelopment is further enabled through two organizational factors: the hierarchical pass and the organizational underpass.

The former can be thought of as a “hall pass” that is afforded to every leader by virtue of being bestowed with the leader title. This pass is like a token that allows for unquestionable assumptions to be automatically afforded (e.g., they have the resident capabilities to lead people, they know more and are more capable). Consequently, any discrepancies that the leader may have are now protected by the pass (e.g., they don't know what it means to lead, and the pass prevents addressing that). The presence of the hierarchical pass creates a safe haven for leaders to promote and never correct underdeveloped areas that prevent them from leading productively.

Worsening the actuality of the hierarchical pass is the organizational underpass. This can be thought of as the space the hierarchical pass allows access to, like a freeway with no speed limits or corrections to how they drive, combined with sweeping access to drive anywhere. They essentially can reach much further into the organization and influence what happens. With the hierarchical pass combined with an organizational underpass, underdeveloped leaders can move with rampant influence throughout the organization with little calibrating feedback to correct anything wrong, such as moving at the wrong speed or going the wrong way. The outcome reinforces the idea that protected incapability is acceptable as a leader.

Unfortunately, organizations can feel handcuffed by the idea of resolving leader underdevelopment. Worse yet, many might struggle to accept the fact that leader underdevelopment exists in their organization. Compounded with the presence of the hierarchical pass and the organizational underpass, there is never an opportunity to identify the actualities of these gaps. The consequential outcome makes the selection of organizational leaders even more crucial.

When an organization hires or promotes a leader, the entirety is affected. Such regard is most often considered when promoting or hiring for executive positions. Yet, any leader of people affects the movement of the most important actuality to the business. Overlooking leaders at lower levels or in an organization focused on scaling is a grave mistake because these leaders likely have a consequential impact on the norms of people movement and the base expectations for future leadership hires and promotions. Leaders must be hired or promoted for their mindset and ability to lead people, not the historical practice of hiring the “best widget maker” to “lead the widget makers.” Is the person being hired or promoted into a leadership role capable of enabling people to bring their best?

Developing organizational leaders means strengthening leaders, but to strengthen leaders means correctly identifying what needs to be strengthened. Organizations are making incredible investments every year on leader development and often their return is no more than alphabet soup sitting behind their leaders' names, which provides no meaningful movement in organizational performance. Further, the tragic presence of the hierarchical pass and organizational underpass cloak organizational awareness to the reality that they are not performing the best they can, much less growing at a rate that will enable the business to succeed.

Businesses need to increase focus on enabling performance through hiring and promoting leaders. Here are some questions that can help interrogate organizational action:

  • What are the desired skills, beyond technical, that organizational leaders must have to locally create performance through humanized and harmonized movement in the people they lead?
  • How are these skills being expressed in current organizational leaders?
  • What is the explicit mindset that supports these expressed skills?
  • What are the underdeveloped skills that need to be addressed in current organizational leaders and evaluated in new candidates?
  • How can the organization rally minds, hearts and action around leadership skills beyond technical to enable organizational performance?

By understanding leader underdevelopment as a proxy for impeding organizational performance, organizations gain a new lens toward hiring and promoting leaders. Further, by understanding the consequences of the protected space and movement leaders are afforded once in their role, organizations can be more attentive to seek out and address leader underdevelopment.