The Challenges of the Accidental Leader

A segment of the leaders that I am currently working with have admitted privately that good fortune has as much to do with their ascent as any other factor.  Many found themselves in leadership vacuums. When opportunities presented themselves through events such as the sudden departure of an incumbent, reorganizations, and M&A activities that resulted in new positions that required immediate staffing, organizations placed their bets on them.  Needless to say, these leaders often find themselves in unfamiliar and confusing terrain, with few, if anyone, to guide them.  Some feel the pressure of appearing confident and competent and respond positively to the confidence that their organizations has placed in them.

In my experience, accidental leaders that have achieved longer term success are distinguished by the following five characteristics

  • They quickly assess what they need for success.  These leaders surround themselves with the appropriate internal and external support systems that enable them, and they ask a lot of questions to learn critical components of their new positions to recognize landmines and other mistakes that could potentially derail them
  • They are socially and emotionally intelligent.  These leaders are adept at building key alliances and coalitions, and they know how to influence important stakeholders whose backing and support is key to their success, especially in the early days when they are trying to gain their footing
  • They are authentic and genuine.  Successful accidental leaders are not afraid to acknowledge areas where they require help and guidance, and are willing to ask for support without feeling they are somehow less of a leader for it
  • They recognize and reward those who come to their side generously.  The word gets around the organization that they will ensure that those who work with them and help them to become successful will in turn be given opportunities for growth and development, and their contributions will be fairly rewarded
  • They carry an insatiable passion for continuous learning and growth.  Every opportunity and challenge becomes a platform for learning and improvement.  The challenge of becoming an accidental leader only serves to incent them further and presents the opportunity to show the world that not only can they perform the requirements of their positions, but they can also exceed expectations

My favorite accidental leader is Christine Legarde, the current head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) who took over the position suddenly upon allegations of sexual misconduct by her predecessor Dominique Strauss-Kahn and his subsequent resignation.

Over the past four years, Lagarde has led her country through the financial crisis, implementation of austerity measures, and its chairmanship of the G-20 countries. She also corralled European support for numerous eurozone meltdowns, including the initial bailout of Greece – and in the past week, she was instrumental in forging a final bailout deal (in particular with Angela Merkel – the German Chancellor).  Edwin Truman, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics has met Lagarde on several occasions and says her style is politically forceful, but personally charming and likable.

The Financial Times conducted an interview with Christine Legarde in December of 2011. Outlined below are some excerpts.

“She has been praised by many western leaders for her cool head and persistent style. ‘Wherever she has worked, she has had a strong voice and impact,’ Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, observed earlier this year. Meanwhile, shortly after her appointment, Timothy Geithner, US treasury secretary, commended her ‘broad experience’ – and the fact that when she had been French finance minister, she had engaged successfully with the wider community while also defending French interests with a passion. George Osborne, the UK’s chancellor of the exchequer, has declared himself a fan, calling her appointment ‘good news for the global economy and Britain’, since she is ‘the best person for the job’.

“Colleagues at the IMF say Lagarde has already delivered a change of tone; whereas Strauss-Kahn used to issue orders and rely on a narrow coterie of advisers, Lagarde has taken pains to consult a wide group of people. ‘My management style is more inclusive. Perhaps you can say that is because I am a woman – I do think that women tend to be more inclusive. I am very decisive when it comes to organizing the team, but I do consult widely and hear many ideas before rushing in,’ she explains.

“However, she has also displayed some willingness to be a little bold: soon after assuming the role, she infuriated eurozone leaders by pointing out that European banks were urgently in need of more capital. And, she argues, an inclusive approach is now a strength, not a weakness; the days when anybody – or any single power – could dominate the agenda are long gone. Economists alone cannot solve disasters.

“As part of that ‘inclusion’ drive, Lagarde continues to try to get more women involved in senior positions. These days, she is trying to put the Strauss-Kahn scandal behind the IMF. ‘There was a healing process in the first couple of weeks [when I arrived] and a sense that we needed to turn the page with purpose. I think it was helpful being a woman for that,’ she says. However, she is now more focused on pushing the IMF to meet its target of 30 percent women in management positions. ‘My board doesn’t look good in terms of female participation, but my senior executive level does,’ she says. ‘Boards can be very deceptive – you see many companies today that have some women on the board, but the senior management is very male.’

“She also continues to promote the wider cause of women. Last year, Lagarde declared that she backed the controversial idea of introducing female quotas into the boards of European companies. ‘This is good for companies too. When I look what happens when you have more women on boards, there is a difference – the general tendency of women is to adopt a different risk profile, in terms of portfolio management, say.’ After all, she adds, most women tend to have a more holistic view of life, partly because they – like she – have spent so many years trying to maneuver family and work.”

Christine Legarde was also featured in a fascinating 60 Minutes segment.  I attach the link.

Who are accidental leaders that come to mind for you?  Were they successful? Why or why not?  Share your story with us.


About Kaveh Naficy
Kaveh is the leader of Heidrick and Struggles executive coaching practice in North America. Kaveh focuses on working with leaders placed to make transformational and creative changes in their organizations. Kaveh has a proven record of success in harnessing the strengths of these leaders to achieve accelerated business solutions. He is able to create significant insights through reflective thinking, presence, and disciplined follow-through. Executives who have worked with Kaveh say that his strengths are his deep insights into the realities of the current and future business world, accelerated scanning of the environment and competition; creative out of the box thinking, and leveraging the collective intelligence of their teams and creating the organizational culture to support and foster the appropriate organizational design and strategies. They also point their deep trust and personal connectivity with Kaveh, his coaching approach, and style.

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