Leadership Transitions: The importance of capability and adaptability when moving into a new role

Team collaborating effectively

Leadership transitions are about so much more than the competencies and technicalities of the role. Successfully stepping up to the mark as a new leader is about how you morph your skills and identity. In other words, the psychological factor is important. The key focus should not lie purely on what the end product needs to look like, but more so on the change process required.

Crucial to successful leadership transitions are adaptability and capability. These two factors go hand in hand; acquiring the necessary capabilities to thrive as a leader involves adapting. The word “capability” may resonate with you in the sense of experience or intellectual ability, but it isn’t just about the specific job tasks; it is about the communication and leadership skills that transcend procedural job competencies.


Capability is about producing outcomes through influence instead of getting bogged down in the technical processes. This requires a degree of social prowess, an ability to plan for the bigger picture, and superior communication skills. Becoming a leader is about managing people to effect change, something most did not have to do in their previous roles. It means becoming suddenly responsible not just for your own growth but also others’, meaning achievement is reflected in the performance of your team.

Our own research found that the ability to empower and delegate was perceived as important1. New leaders must delegate responsibility to their employees, while simultaneously holding accountability for the outcome; a fine line to walk. This brings with it a greater need for connections and social skills; relationships must actively be built and maintained, not left only to be resurrected when needed. The notion of influencing without authority is crucial here; the new-found authority that comes with the job must be handled carefully, and persuasion skills honed. Leaders must also learn to deal with the various polarities and dilemmas2, particularly in the form of conflict management and compromise.


In order to develop these capabilities, new leaders must possess a learning mind-set, a crucial part of adaptability. Experience is often the best teacher, so new leaders should be afforded the opportunity to make mistakes and learn through them. In turn, learning from mistakes requires an appetite for challenge and the perception of challenges as opportunities, not threats – a characteristic of personal resilience.

The key to adaptability beyond learning mind-set and resilience is self-awareness, the ability to evaluate oneself in comparison to where you want to be. It involves knowledge of strengths and weaknesses, and being open to feedback. In this sense, new leaders will have to challenge their own beliefs, and reflect upon their repertoire of behaviours to let go of those that are no longer useful.


Here are some top tips for facilitating a smooth leadership transition:

  • Make use of coaches: they can provide a sounding board and source of advice for new leaders, helping them to reflect on their actions and learn quickly
  • Emphasise role clarity: ensure the leader knows exactly what is expected of them, and how their role will be different from their previous role
  • Give constructive feedback: evaluate the process as it occurs, and tell the leader what they are doing right, as well as suggesting how they can do things successfully in the future




1. McGrane, K., & Maitland, A. (2014). Navigating Leadership Transitions. Lane4 White Paper

2. Manderscheid, S. V., & Freeman, P. D. (2012). Managing polarity, paradox, and dilemma during leader transition. European Journal of Training and Development, 36, 856-872