The Higher the Climb, the Bigger the Stretch: How Effective Leadership Changes as Leaders Ascend

We’ve all heard some version of the Peter Principle: that in a hierarchical organization, every employee will rise to the level of their respective incompetence. It assumes that employees possessing the skills need to excel in a given position will be promoted to the next “rung” on the corporate ladder, which will require different skills; should they possess those, they will be promoted again, and so on. Once they reach a rung that requires skills they do not have, they’ll remain there indefinitely – mired in their incompetence.

Dark stuff. And while principle was written as satire, our new research illustrates exactly why it rings true for so many. Because while of course the specific skills change from position to position, there are also significant changes in the behaviors a leader needs to emphasize at different levels within the organization.

In a new global study of more than 17,000 leaders, we found that while a handful of behavioral shifts are required as one moves out of their earliest career stages, as mid-level leaders transition to senior positions, the number of behavioral shifts more than triples. The degree of change increases as the leader ascends higher in the organization – and in some transitions, even the direction of behavioral change varies (so leaders must learn to increase a behavior at one level, then decrease it later on).

Does all this make successful career growth sound like a steep uphill climb? Of course. What the Peter Principle ignores, of course, is the profound impact of thoughtful, intentional leadership development throughout a career. This research appears to underscore the need for development throughout an individual’s career, and for an agile, personal, flexible approach to this development – one that relies more on nuance and context than on prescribed, static models of effectiveness.

The full report, Stepping Up: the Behaviors Leaders Need to Increase (and Decrease) as they Climb the Ranksreveals the fascinating ways that the behaviors associated with effective leadership shift throughout a career. Read the complete findings here.


About the author

Lucy is the Head of Marketing at MRG. She's a passionate people person who talks with her hands even when she's on the phone. She will not rest until everyone on earth has taken their IDI.

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