Why are some leaders perceived to be less effective over time?

Can leaders lose their leadership effectiveness over time? Is that a real loss of leadership competence or perceived decline? What could have caused the loss? 

In the second phase of my year-long longitudinal study on leadership development in SMEs, I noticed a significant decline in the ratings of some managers from a particular SME according to the Competing Values Framework (CVF) leadership survey. The raters include supervisors and direct reports of these managers, although the focus here is on the ratings given by the supervisors. There was a 10 to 20% decline in the ratings of statements describing leadership behaviours such as ‘Facilitates consensus building in the work unit’, ‘Builds teamwork among group members’, ‘Clarifies priorities and direction’, ‘Gives feedback in a timely and effective manner’, etc. Most would say that these are important leadership behaviours, and a collective decline in the ratings of that magnitude for almost all the managers would be very concerning to the organisation. In the follow-up interviews with the managers, while I notice a trace of discouragement from the interviewees, they were essentially the same people I spoke with a year ago. So, what had changed? I found it incredible to think that they had lost their skills or knowledge in leadership over time. 

Upon further investigation, I ascertained three key reasons for the decline in the ratings. First, there have been increased responsibilities leading to reduced time for the managers to demonstrate certain leadership behaviours. Second, the changes in organisational strategy and managerial roles resulted in a different definition of leadership effectiveness. Third, the expectations from the raters on the development of the managers rose faster than the actual improvement that took place. 

First, every leadership behaviour requires time to demonstrate. Some more than the others. Due to a severe labour shortage, these SME managers have had to wear multiple hats, and they reported not having the same amount of time as before in performing some leadership duties. There just wasn’t as much time to ‘Listen to the personal problems of employees’ or ‘Give feedback in a timely and effective manner’. These leadership behaviours concerning people management and innovation (e.g. ‘Searches for innovation and potential improvements’) were especially susceptible to the reduction in time. 

Second, the organisation was undergoing a huge transition in executive leadership, which resulted in a shift in organisational strategy and culture. The target has shifted. What was defined as an effective leader is different now. Simply put, what the organisation needed in a leader some time ago is no longer what they want for the future. Therefore, it is not so much that the managers have become poorer leaders, but that they are now required to behave differently. The current leadership competencies they possess are not as relevant anymore.

Third, under the new executive leadership, with added roles and responsibilities, the expectations of these SME managers were rising much faster than before. They couldn’t keep up. When the second round of the survey was conducted, the managers were perceived as not catching up with the expected development required by their superiors. Survey ratings are based on perception and perception changes with expectations. In this case, the SME managers were merely expected to do more, rather than actually become less effective over time. 

There were other possible reasons for the perceived loss of leadership effectiveness. These include the raters’ unfamiliarity with the survey tool resulting in inconsistent evaluations and the presence of cognitive biases. The important point is to avoid taking leadership survey results at face value, likewise if the results are positive.

Have you seen leaders who seemed to become less effective over time? What do you think may have led to that? 

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