Most CEOs will agree that leadership is important

Most CEOs will agree that leadership is important, yet few assess their leadership gap precisely. Fewer still build an engine to develop the right quantity of leaders with the right mix of capabilities, at the right time, to match opportunities.
If the number of leaders needed to achieve a strategic goal—for example, expanding current operations or developing new businesses—were set against the number of existing leaders, a company could uncover the numeric leadership gap it must address. Even if an organization has enough leaders, it may discover a shortfall in their capabilities. A company expanding internationally, for example, could find that its current leaders lacked the cultural sensitivity to operate in unfamiliar geographies. Or a corporation entering new markets could find it had too many engineers and not enough business builders.
The failure to assess leadership capacity systematically before launching strategic initiatives can leave top executives scrambling to fill gaps at the last minute—with significant consequences.
In the short term, companies that undertake new strategies without the right leaders in place are forced to burden their existing ones with additional responsibilities. As such leaders take on the new challenges, the demands from day-to-day operations invariably increase, leaving less time for other tasks. Often these leaders drop the activities with less tangible outcomes, such as staff development, for which the effects are not immediately evident. If a company stretches its existing leaders too far, their overall effectiveness takes a nosedive. From the start, this trade-off compromises strategic objectives. Companies executing strategies under these circumstances assume either that they can get by with suboptimal leadership or that achieving just part of their initial objectives will capture a corresponding percentage of the strategy’s net present value. We know from experience that these assumptions can be fatally wrong: one critical misstep can jeopardize the entire investment.
In the longer term, a persistent leadership gap will be responsible for an inexorable decline in the number and quality of leaders. Companies create a vicious cycle in which good leaders become overextended or are moved haphazardly and thus have less time to develop younger talent. The day will come when they hand over the reins to a less experienced, ill-prepared group of successors. Left unchecked, this cycle can ultimately put the company’s core operations and strategic growth at risk.
Leadership first
Given the severe consequences of a leadership gap—the best-planned strategy is no more than wishful thinking if it can’t be translated from concept to reality—why do so many companies discover their leadership shortfall only when executing their strategies? This question raises another, more fundamental one regarding strategy and leadership: which is the chicken and which is the egg? Companies have taken a number of useful approaches to this puzzle.