Why Your Best Performers Usually Make the Worst Leaders

We all make this mistake, and we’ll continue to make this mistake.

It’s the same old story: One of your employees performs really, really well, and because of their performance you move them out of the position they are in and put them in a leadership position. Then, they fail and become a lousy performer.

The best companies in the world make this mistake, and keep making it. The worst companies make this mistake as well, as does every other company in between.

When great performers become marginal leaders

We can’t stop ourselves. It might be the largest single failure of business in the history of the world, and we can’t stop ourselves.

I like sports and it’s easy to make this analogy with sports.

Larry Bird, one of the all time NBA greats, couldn’t handle being a head coach. But, he was one of the greatest basketball players of all time. He couldn’t take that those players he was coaching weren’t as good as he was, and couldn’t do the things he could do. He couldn’t understand this. For him, it was easy.

Great performers are great because they do or have something no one else does. It might be superior work ethic, it might be God-given talent. Regardless, they have perform better than everyone else.

Therein lies why they struggle to become great, or even marginal, leaders. They can’t understand why you can’t do the same thing. They think: I did it. What’s your problem!?

Most can’t make the transition

We take our best and brightest and we “reward” them with management positions. We believe this is what they really want. In reality most don’t actually want this.

They really love what they are doing, shown by the tremendous performance they are giving you. And as an organization, we want to reward that great performance, but we have structure and the only way we can really reward them, to give them more money, the big money and the big title, is to promote them.

So, we promote them.

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And we hope. We hope they’ll be one of the few who can make the transition and not be a total failure when it comes to leading other people, but rarely does it really happen. Usually, it’s just the slow death of another great performer as they sink into the mediocrity of leadership.

A few organizations are beginning to just stop this. They leave their great individual performers in position and just pay them like they would pay a leader. They sometimes even give them a leader title.

But what they don’t do is give them people to manage! They reward them for truly great performance, and put them in a position to keep performing great.

We need to value performance over leadership

Your best, most talented person, is worth more than your average leader. But we struggle with this because it doesn’t fit nice and neat to a compensation pay band, or any job description we have in our HRMS system.

Yes, we feel this undeniable desire to force people into positions we know they won’t do well in, because it makes us feel better when we pay them more. It’s justification of value. We value leadership more than great performance.

That’s 1950 talking. Stop listening.

This was originally published on Tim Sackett’s blog, The Tim Sackett Project.

Tim Sackett, MS, SPHR is executive vice president of HRU Technical Resources, a contingent staffing firm in Lansing, MI. Tim has 20 years of HR and talent background split evenly between corporate HR gigs among the Fortune 500 and the HR vendor community ? so he gets it from both sides of the desk. A frequent contributor to the talent blog Fistful of Talent, Tim also speaks at many HR conferences and events. Contact him here.

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