Setting Scene

Leadership transitions (LTs) are inherent to and critical passages in the career of any leader, e.g., from one requisite Level of Work to another; from one type of position/ role to another; or from one organisational function to another.

A LT can be defined as the taking up of and engagement with a new set of accountabilities, responsibilities and/ or authority by a leader as contained in a leadership role. By implication, also the disengagement from an existing role. Simply put, a LT is about taking charge of a new role as a leader by moving out of an existing into a new role.

During his/ her career a leader will make many of these transitions with varying degrees of risk of success (or failure).  By all accounts the frequency of these transitions are on the increase because of the VICCASS world with its correspondingly significant and radical impact on organisations as they seek to respond appropriately, and these responses in turn impacting on leaders in their roles.

By its very nature LTs at best are disruptive. At worst, they are highly costly and draining for the leader involved, his/ her direct team, the organisation(s) and stakeholders concerned as the leader is moving into and through the transition. For example, it has been estimated that 75% of leaders experience moderate to significant adjustment during transitions.

Organisation invests hundreds of hours and billions of rands into leadership development but pay scant attention to probably the most regularly occurring, highest risk event in the career of leaders when this investment is significantly endangered: transitions.  It appears that leaders who effective at handling transitions, are more likely to be effective throughout their careers.

Organisations are reluctant to openly addressing LTs in depth. LTs seen as a ‘No Go’ area. Why?

Openly addressing, and formally dealing with LTs, is hampered by the view that is a ‘No Go’ area. Why?

  • Firstly, it is believed  that the intimate details of the process of moving through  a LT must be kept as secret as possible in order to protect and enhance the image of the infallible, invincible, all knowing leader able to overcome any challenge, inter alia a transition, effortlessly and with confident ease.
  • Secondly, it is an undiscussable experience because it possibly will incapacitate and undermine the incoming leader’s confidence as he/ she is endeavouring to find his/ her feet during the ‘vulnerable’ period.
  • Thirdly, the unpreparedness of all parties for the LT results in nobody knowing what roles they  are expected to play, and contributions they are expected to make, in assisting with and enabling the LT that results in a ‘hands off’ attitude because of this ambiguity.

What Myths regarding Leadership Transitions must be debunked?

Seven of more dominant the LT myths must be brought into the open and destroyed:    

  • Myth 1: ‘All LTs are created equal.’ Truth: Each LT has its own unique features and dynamics, and hence has to be looked at every time with fresh eyes. The same recipe cannot be applied automatically to each and every LTs, regardless of how many LTs the leader concerned has gone through.
  • Myth 2:  ‘LTs is a plug-and-play event’. The leader leaves his/ her existing role today, and takes up his new role tomorrow, and is up and running virtually immediately. Truth: LT is a change process of shorter or longer duration, requiring all round adjustments – both concretely, objectively but also intangibly, subjectively – over time in a multiple Domains. The more Domains affected, and the more boundaries crossed, the longer and more intense the adjustment process and period.   
  • Myth 3: ‘The New Role as espoused upfront, and the actual new Role being brought into, are the same.’ Truth: Typically, only formal Role accountabilities and duties are shared upfront: the espoused Role. The invisible, intangible role requirements as well as the dynamics and factors surrounding and affecting the Role are not shared at all, or are near impossible to share down to the finest detail: the actual Role. Or if shared at all, at most covered superficially.
  • Myth 4: ‘You are essentially 100% ability wise ready for the new Role, except for maybe some minor tweaks. Otherwise, you would not have been approached to take up the new Role.’  Truth: There is never a 100% ability wise and readiness match between the leader and the new Role. Until the transitioned leader fully understands his/ her new Role, he/ she has to accept that he/ she is unconsciously incompetent with respect to the Role. Past success recipes or habits from the previous Role(s) also cannot be applied uncritically and indiscriminately to the new Role.
  • Myth 5: ‘We expect you to take charge immediately and be effective from the word ’Go.’ We would like to see a (comprehensive) action plan as soon as possible’’ Truth: This is the typical ‘first 90 days’ syndrome associated with the incoming leader as the healer, fixer, saviour and knight on a white horse, especially  when the new leader is brought in to rectify a bad or deteriorating sit-up. This myth builds on Myth 2 of LT being an event, and Myth 4 of a 100% match with the new Role. (See also Myth 6 below). However, before a leader can become truly effective in his/ her new Role, he/ she has a good understanding of the new Role, and all the factors affecting his/ her new Role, now and going into the future.
  • Myth 6: ‘Given that you are the right person for the Role, and having an excellent track record, you will have automatic and unconditional credibility and legitimacy with all of your new stakeholders, especially with your new team. If not, use your authority and power to get them in line and on your side.’ Truth: Credibility, legitimacy and trust have to be earned. This takes time. Credibility, legitimacy and trust also affect the initial full disclosure and open sharing of essential information with the incoming leader, especially the undiscussables that are present in all settings.  Until the leader is not been able to bring these into the open, he/ she has not fully accepted, and cannot be fully effective.   
  • Myth 7: ’Making a transition, is a solo flying act for the transitioning leader. He/she must make it work.’ Truth: This myth also builds on Myth 2: LT being an event. Without a pro-actively conceived, formalised, organisationally supported transition process to support and enable the transitioning leader, the risk of his/ her failure is significantly increased. It is also not a sign of weakness on the side of the transitioning leader to request, and even insist on such support. Or from the organisational side, a sign of doubting the transitioning leader’s ability by offering and even enforcing such support.

What does a basic basic map of the Leadership Transition Landscape look like?

What are possible Triggers to a Leadership Transition? What moves can a leader make?

What Conditions affect an Activated Leadership Transition Process? 

Eight conditions. Conditions must be viewed in a systemic and integrated fashion: conditions affect one another. Hence the LT conditions form an interdependent whole that have to be considered systemically in their impact on the transition process.

What role does Broader Context (Factor 1) play in LTs?

The Broader Context refers to the macro setting in which the LT process is embedded and unfolds. This setting is similar is that faced by the leader under ‘everyday, normal’ conditions in the current but content wise now has to be made specific to the specific LT triggered with respect to the New. In other words, what features of the Broader Context will inform and shape the LT set in motion?

How must one understand the Transition Gap (Factor 2) faced by the transitioning leader?

The Transition Gap pertains to the scope of the transition to be addressed in terms of the difference between the Current and New.

The Transition Gap is made up of three dimensions: the number of affected Domains; the nature and degree of Novelty; and Affected Facets by depth/ shallowness and needed alignment across Domains.    

What Transition Qualities (Factor 3) can affect a LT?

A LT is significantly more intense the more it takes on a greater number of the qualities given in the lower half of the figure: the qualities from ‘Undesired’ through to ‘Informal, laissez fair’. Inversely, a LT is significantly less intense if it is imbued by the qualities in the upper half of the figure: from being a ‘Formalised process’ through to ‘Pro-active response’.

What role does Personal Attributes and Experience of Leader (Factor 4) play in his/ her transition?

The leader as a Person has to make the transition. It appears that a number of Personal Attributes and Experience enhance the chances that the leader will successfully navigate a transition. In other words, the leader having transition ‘resilience’.  The contention is that the stronger these attributes, and the more the leader’s LT experience, the better he/ she will be able to weather the transition. Also that the attributes and experience increase in criticality, the more intense the LT, and the more frequent the LTs.

  • Risk  tolerance
  • Tolerance for ambiguity
  • An internal locus of control
  • Humble confidence
  • Self-insight with an astute awareness of personal strengths and weaknesses
  • Flexibility and adaptability
  • Personal coherence
  • A willingness to experiment
  • An openness to personal change
  • Prior transition experience

How does Discretion (Factor 5) affect the leader to shape the transition she/ he faces?

This transition condition sets the degree of autonomy the leader has regarding the shaping of the transition process.

Transition fit processes

  • Individuation. The Person can shape the other Transition Domains of Role, Relationships, Organisation and Immediate Context as he/ she sees fit and it suits him/ her – high personal discretion.
  • Socialisation. The Person has little freedom of choice and has to fit into the other Transition Domains of Role, Relationships, Organisation and Immediate Context – low personal discretion.
  • Acculturation.  This transition process pertains specifically to the degree of Discretion the Person has regarding his/ her transition with respect to the needed cultural changes within the New Immediate Context, typically applicable to expatriates. Can the leader continue freely living his/ her life in the New Immediate Context according his/ her cultural orientations/ preferences: high personal discretion? Or, does he/ she have fit into the cultural orientations, habits and customs of his/ her New Immediate Context implying that he/ she has to adopt the cultural orientations, habits and customs of his/ her New Immediate Context: low personal discretion?

What Dilemmas (Factor 6) does a leader face during transitioning? 

From the triggering of the transition, and moving through the transition, a leader has to balance a number of tensions in the form of complementary polarities. The polarities hence represent dilemmas faced by the transitioning leader.  Essentially the dilemmas pertain to how the leader wants to engage with the New upon entry.

Central to LT’s is the Transition Process. What does this process look like?

The Transition Process is made up of two components, Adjustment Mode and Life Cycle.

What does Adjustment Mode (Factor 7) regarding LT’s entail?

Adjustment mode refers to what approach (or strategy) the leader will use to adjust to the New. Life Cycle pertains to the stages making up a LT. A narrower or a broader approach can be taken to a LT.

  • In the former approach – pre-dominant in the literature – a LT is limited to only the entry into and settling-in of the leader into the New. This period typically takes six to nine months, all other things been equal.
  • In the broader approach, LT is seen as a Life Cycle made up of a number of stages over time of the leader moving into, though, and out of a Role. LT in the narrower sense is but one stage of this Life Cycle: the initial stage of moving into the New.

The drawback of the narrower approach is that one falls into the trap of viewing a LT as merely a stand-alone event – although still a process – of a relatively short duration. The need is disregarded to look at the unfolding stages – each with their distinct nature and dynamics – over the total timespan of a leader being in a new Role, the broader LT approach.

A Life Cycle approach allows the leader and organisation to carefully and pro-actively direct and steer effectively the leader’s entire occupancy period of a Role, from entry into through to exiting from the Role. A Life Cycle approach will be taken to LTs for the reasons elucidated above.           

What Adjustment Modes (Factor 7) are available to leader to adjust and fit into to his/ her New Role?

Five adjustment modes can be distinguished, each accompanied by a ‘cocktail’ of positive and negative feelings:

  • Mode 1: Replication.  The transitioning leader makes the minimal adjustments in him/ herself and the New. It is more of the same.  He/ she performs much the same as in his/ her previous Role by treating the New as similar to the Old. Positive feelings regarding this mode could be a sense of stability and continuity. Negative feelings may be a sense of being in a rut: more of the same, being trapped, and being helpless.
  • Mode 2: Absorption.  The transitioning leader makes most, if not all of the adjustment, with no or minimal modifications to the New.  Most of his/ her time is spent absorbing the New through the transition processes of socialisation and/ or acculturation. Positive feelings in this case could be the satisfaction of being challenged, new things to learn, and the extension of one’s skills, knowledge and expertise into unknown areas. Negative feelings may arise out of the letting go of valued skills, expertise and knowledge, and threats to one’s identity, confidence, self-image and confidence.
  • Mode 3: Transformation. Through the process of individuation the transitioning leader re-creates the New to fit him/ her, and makes minimal adjustments to him/ herself. Positive feelings in this mode can be from the opportunity to demonstrate one’s ability to be creative and innovative; and being fully in charge that gives one a sense of being in control.  Negative feelings would be mostly arise in response to others’ unhappiness within the New with the unsettling of the status quo that is seen as a threat to and a destruction of the valued order and traditions. However, negative feelings also may arise out of the transitioning leader’s uncertainty of whether his/ her innovations will work, take and be accepted.
  • Mode 4: Co-creation. Mutual, simultaneous give-and-take adjustments in the transitioning leader and in the New in order to reach a point of ‘consensus’.  The processes of individuation, socialisation and acculturation are equally at work. In this case positive feelings may arise out of personal growth and/ or successfully moving through the cycles of thoughtful exploration, discovery, action reflection and learning. Negative feelings may be due to the uncertainty arising out of what is untouchable and changeable, and where the boundaries are.
  • Mode 5: Isolation. The transitioning leader remains unintegrated into and separate from the New. In other words, though physically present in the New, the transition has been unsuccessful.  The reasons for an unsuccessful transition are multiple: the leader has been imposed by a Board/ the Executive on the organisation or an organisational unit, typically from externally, resulting in an organisational ‘revolt’; a serious philosophical and/ or style disconnect between the new leader and his/ her superior(s); or, a hidden critical inability and/ or lack of experience in the new leader surfaces resulting in a detrimental mismatch between the incoming leader and the New. The transition leader and New remain separate because there is no real ‘connectivity’.  Usually only negative feelings are associated with this adjustment mode: isolation, alienation, rejection and failure accompanied by feelings of incompetence, a lack of confidence, and a real threat to one’s sense of personal identity and self-worth.

What does the make-up of the Life Cycle (Factor 8) of LTs look like?

The Life Cycle of LTs has two, equally important sides: a subjective, intangible and an objective, intangible side. Using the iceberg analogy: the former is below the water; and the latter above.

The subjective, intangible LT Life Cycle

All LTs goes through a psychosocial change Life Cycle affecting all parties concerned, namely the personal experiences of the LT: the leader him/ herself and the stakeholders concerned. This Life Cycle will look different depending on: (i) the intensity of the transition, invoked by the above discussed transitioning conditions; and (ii) the feelings arising out of the adjustment mode, freely chosen or imposed, which will set a certain upfront tone (or mood) for the psychosocial change Life Cycle.

The objective, tangible LT Life Cycle

Objectively viewed, LTs goes through a number of formal, tangible transition stages as seen primarily from the perspective of the transitioning leader.  The figure depicts the composition of this Life Cycle).

The metaphor of a star will be used to illustrate the ‘state’ of the transitioning leader.  It is difficult to allocate time specific durations to a stage, though as stated above Stage 1 typically is seen to last six to nine months. A leader may move slower or faster through a stage. Or, even get stuck in a stage.

Stage 1.1: Entry – ‘The New Star’ 

Having entered the New, the leader is unknown as a proven leader within his/ her new Role. Generally stakeholders would have a ‘wait and see’ attitude, though some may seek actively to win early favour with the new leader. The leader’s transition need is to move from being Unconsciously Unfit to Consciously Unfit with respect to the demands and requirements of the New in order to make explicit the gap between the Current and New.  Having made the gap conscious, the leader can now decide explicitly what actions need to be taken to close the gap.

Some of the critical stage actions are, making up the leader’s transition agenda, given in an approximate, priority order: what must I let go of that made me successful in my previous Role? What is the New that I have to embrace and learn to make me successful in terms of abilities, relationships, information, knowledge, direction, priorities and ruling culture? Who are the critical stakeholders I have to establish relationships with, and build my credibility and legitimacy with? How will I go about building relationships with them? How do I ensure mutual, realistic and expectations between others and me? What ground rules do I have to establish for us working together? What are the first (symbolic) actions I have to take to make good, first impressions?

Stage 1.2:  Unfolding – ‘The Rising/ Pulsating Star’

In this stage the leader is settling in and finds his/ her feet regarding the New as he/ she increasingly establishes him/herself. Performance wise, he/ she is demonstrating masterful leadership from time-to-time as he/ she is settling in. He/ she is starting to make a real difference. His/her transition need is to move from being Consciously Unfit to Consciously Fit regarding the New which has now becoming the known.

Some of the critical stage actions are building and rolling out a shared direction, agreed-upon priorities and action plan; establishing common values; early successes; increasingly been seen as worthy of trust; growing in credibility and legitimacy in the eyes of stakeholders, and gaining more and more support. The essence of the stage is winning the mandate (or right) to lead; and standing up and out.

Stage 1.3:  Blooming – The ‘Shining Star’ or ‘Black Hole’

The leader has become masterful as a leader in the New which has now become the known Current. He/ she is acting with confidence based on good intelligence and insight, and performing well. He/ she has won the support and trust of stakeholders who have awarded him/ her the unconditional right to lead. The leader is well and truly on top of the New, doing the right things right. Two types of leaders can be distinguished in this stage in the leadership galaxy: the ‘Shining Star’: the ethical, responsible, performing leader or the ‘Black Hole’: the unethical, toxic, performing leader. During this stage the leader moves in terms of transition need from Consciously Fit to Unconsciously Fit.

Stage 1.4: Plateauing – The ‘Shooting Star’

The leader’s performance in the known, current setting is peaking. He/ she is in comfort zone (or rut), being merely in a maintenance mode, performance and relationship wise. It is increasingly more of the same all of the time. The success recipe has been found, and is repeated and defended regardless of its continued relevancy. Past successes and the good old days are glorified. He/ she has reached their ‘sell by’ date. Some stakeholders may find comfort in the predictability, security and continuity of the sameness of the Current. Others may be grow increasingly frustrated as they see the success recipe is no longer working, only past achievements count, and performance is slipping. A palace revolution may be is brewing.

The leader’s transition need is shifting from being Unconsciously Fit to (Un)consciously Unfit regarding the Current. If the leader realises that he/ she is Consciously Unfit – in other words he/she is plateauing – he/ she may then deliberately initiate the activation of a new Life Cycle by moving into Stage 2.1: Renewal. However, necessarily so. The leader may be in such a comfort zone that he/ she just wants to see his/ her time out, typical of a leader close to retirement or at the end of a fixed term contract who does not want to rock the boat. If he/ she slips into Unconsciously Unfit, or does nothing about the realisation of being Consciously Unfit, he/ she will stay on the same Life Cycle and slide irrevocably into Stage 1.5: Demise.

Stage 2.1: Renewal – The ‘Re-energised (or refuelled) Star’

The Consciously Unfit leader who takes action to move him/ her into a New Stage 1: Entry on a new Life Cycle may do so by triggering a new LT move. For example, redefining/ expanding his/ her current Role, moving into a new Role and/ or organisation.  He/ she has transformed him/ herself into a ‘Re-energised (or refuelled) Star’ in the leadership galaxy but on a new Life Cycle that demands a next LT.  This will invoke a new set of the above stages as described above, 2.1: Entry and so on but on a new Life Cycle. Thus there is also need for the ‘last 90 days’ exit strategy.


Stage 5:  Demise – The ‘Shooting Star’ 

This leader is increasingly underperforming in the Current. He/she has not initiated a 2.1: Renewal Stage, and is paying the price.  It is now publicly admitted and spoken about the leader being Consciously Unfit, and will unfortunately remain so.  The leader cannot be saved by him/ herself or others. He/ she is becoming increasingly ignored, side lined, isolated and rejected. His/ her views are no longer sought;  his/ her decisions/ actions not taken seriously; and the epi-centre of energy is moving away from him/ her. He/ she is a definite ‘Shooting Star’ in the leadership galaxy.

Stage 6: Oblivion – ‘Burnt out/ Inactive Star’ 

This is the leader who has disappeared totally from the radar screen, and has become forgotten by all, although some may still have fond memories of the person. He/ she has gone into memorium: rest-in-peace.  However, history is replete with leaders who have gone into ostensible dominancy but returned with ‘vengeance’ when the time and place were right to re-emerge as an unexpected and unpredictable ‘Re-energised (or refuelled) Star’. And/ or, the period of dormancy allowed them to either re-invent themselves. They are back again as a serious contender.

Another exception are leaders who have gone in dormancy but remain ‘active’ in the minds of people long even after they have gone, and serve as exemplary models because of their lasting, worthy legacy.

In summary: for masterful leadership, a leader must at any given point in time know in which stage of his/ her current Life Cycle he/ she is, and take the appropriate actions relevant to that stage in order to move him/ her along the Life Cycle in order to remain masterful.

What are the indicators of positive vs negative LTs?  LT Outcomes

It is hoped that through the in depth discussion of the nature and dynamics of LTs, a strong case has been made to bring LTs into the public domain of the organisation as openly discussed, critical high risk organisational occurrences occurring on a frequent basis that have to be mitigated with foresight and careful planning

Prof. Theo H Veldsman – Work Psychologist, Visiting Professor in Work Psychology at University of Johannesburg, Strategic Associate, InavitlQ







Do you recognise some areas in yourself as a leader or areas in your team that need improvement?

Contact Adriaan Groenewald for more on creating “Leadership Fit” leaders that generate successful movement (performance) inside you as a leader and your organisation.

Adriaan Groenewald is an Authentic Leadership Activist

P  :    
Twitter:   Adriaan  &  Leadership Platform

                                                       Linkedin:  Adriaan  &  Leadership Platform

                                                       Facebook:   Leadership Platform




Call: +27 (0)12 653 3022
Email: info@leadershipplatform.com

Follow Us

Leadership Platform is a specialist leadership development consultancy, focusing on creating measurable impact to the bottom line through the enhancement of leadership understanding and engagement.


By subscribing you will be updated with the latest insights and news from us. We never spam.