Nancy Drozdow

Nancy Drozdow

Founder and Principal

Tom Gilmore wrote Making a Leadership Change in 1988, and though much time has passed, his wisdom is a refresher in how to think about leadership transitions today.

One of the chapters in the book (Chapter 8) is about “dealing with the shadow of previous leadership.” Much of this chapter discusses ways to overcome the common dilemmas that arise when a new leader, hired from outside the organization, enters. Tom goes into some detail about the shadow of a prior leader or prior time and how these shadows inadvertently undermine a new leader as they form their executive team, formulate strategy, and even communicate ideas that could harness the goodwill that often accompanies a leader’s entry, regardless of the reasons for the prior leader’s exit. It offers insight into ways to productively take up these common hurdles.

If one thing has changed in the years since first published, it is the willingness to talk more openly about what used to be less discussable about leadership and leaders in real-time. We see this willingness with more and more leaders today – of a collaborative style that engages their organizations in the real dilemmas they all face. This is not about abdicating leadership, rather, it’s about what we might see as a healthy evolution of thinking in what it takes to lead – not that it’s easy or easier now. Leaders still need to stick their necks out, and new leaders have to do it gingerly. To quote:

Different perceptions of the new leader and existing staff create tension during the transition. Two people in an anxious relationship will inevitably triangle with a third to redistribute the anxiety, in ways that often distort and inhibit learning.

This dynamic is still with us. Yet today, we are optimistic that the need for a triangle – bringing in a third party to defuse the anxiety felt by the leader dealing with the shadows of their entry – may be less present. The skill of communication may be one that is never fully achieved, but the effort toward clearer understanding seems more a part of organizational life than at the time of the book’s writing. I see it in our work, and I’ve been at our work for quite a while. Leaders have built a resourcefulness that comes from a generation of learning that the last 35 years has grown