The 4 levels of leadership where leaders-in-transition fail most often.

At which levels of leadership within organisational structures, pose the greatest challenge to an executive’s successful transition?

Across the research and literature, the number of leadership levels range from 3 to 7. However, in my recent PhD Research into leadership transitions (detailed further at the end), I could only justify the existence of 4 distinct levels that executives experience where the differences in the required work warrants or creates a significant transition; (1) Leading Individual Contributors, (2) Leading Leaders, (3) Leading a Function and (4) Leading a Business / Enterprise.

There are very limited models and frameworks that address leadership transitions or the leadership levels. The most popular is the leadership pipeline (Charan, Drotter & Noel 2011), which based around GE’s approach to leadership development, argues that there are 7 leadership levels with six passages between them:

  1. Leading self,
  2. Leading others,
  3. Leading leaders,
  4. Functional leader,
  5. Business leader,
  6. Group leader, and
  7. Enterprise leader.

At each level, the leader is required to learn new thought processes and behaviours while relinquishing previous ones, to adapt to increased complexity and new time horizons, and to develop a more strategic perception of the organisation. According to the leadership pipeline, depending on the size and structure of the organisation, some of the levels may not exist, resulting in leaders jumping passages and concurrently encountering both sets of transition challenges.

The primary critique of the leadership pipeline is the argument that it is not empirically based, and that subsequent research does not exist to validate the framework. Another critique is that the empirical evidence only supports three levels within organisations where roles are similar, but the required work is distinctly different (Zaccaro 2011):

  1. Executive level leaders who create the structure,
  2. Middle management roles that interpret the structure, and
  3. Supervisory roles that apply the structure (Kaiser 2011).

Whilst the leadership pipeline is perhaps the most popular model, other similar models did precede it. A model by Mahler (1986) framed the challenges that leaders face with ascending the organisational hierarchy as career crossroads. These crossroads represent a change in position that results in a severe change in behaviour needed to succeed at the higher-level role. Four crossroads were identified:

  1. Managing self,
  2. Managing others,
  3. Becoming a functional manager, and
  4. Becoming a business manager.

Another alternative model to the leadership pipeline is Freedman’s (2011) ‘Pathways and Crossroads’. This model argues for five levels of leadership where each level is characterised by distinctive demands placed on the leader and the model explains that as leaders move through the crossroads, they must recognise that certain behaviours, styles and activities initially valued at lower levels can be dysfunctional or inadequate at their current level:

  1. Individual contributor,
  2. Supervising manager,
  3. Single business manager,
  4. Executive manager of a business portfolio, and
  5. Institutional leader.

In my research, based on the challenges that the participants identified and the factors they viewed as promoters and/or inhibitors, four distinct levels emerged that presented significant challenges and caused the leaders in my study to struggle with their transition. These levels are:

  1. Leading Individual Contributors – The first time leading (leading others) is a considerable milestone and foray into leadership generally.
  2. Leading Leaders – The jump to leading other leaders (leading leaders) forces the leader to be able to articulate their leadership approach / philosophy, and accept that others will alter the approach to suit their philosophy.
  3. Leading a Function – Leading a function puts the leader in a position where they need to move from technical expert to technical leader, a change many never successfully make.
  4. Leading a Business / Enterprise – The final level is where the leader assumes the responsibility for all functions in a business often struggling with functional inexperience or bias.

Regardless of whether your view there to be three, four, five or seven levels, all models agree that the skills leaders require change as they ascend the different levels—and that failing to adjust or adapt these skills is likely to result in executive derailment or failure.

*If the leaders in your organisation struggle with transitions to these leadership levels, there are support options that can dramatically improve the potential for success. Please contact me if you would like information on our transition workshops or transition coaching.


Charan, R, Drotter, S & Noel, J 2011, The leadership pipeline, John Wiley & Sons, San Francisco, CA.

Freedman, AM 2011, ‘Some implications of validation of the leadership pipeline concept: Guidelines for assisting managers-in-transition’, The Psychologist-Manager Journal, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 140−159.

Kaiser, RB 2011, ‘The leadership pipeline: Fad, fashion, or empirical fact? An introduction to the special issue’, The Psychologist-Manager Journal, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 71–75.

Mahler, WR 1986, ‘The succession planning handbook for the human resource executive’, Midland Park, NJ: Mahler Publishing Company.

Zaccaro, SJ 2001, The nature of executive leadership, American Psychological Association, Washington, DC.


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