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Why Transient Leadership Isn’t Always Bad – and How to Make the Most of It


Wendy Guthrie and Joy Langley

Date Published

Jan 11, 2023
5 minute read
Transient Leadership

“Transient” Leadership Defined

Transient leadership is a temporary, impermanent leadership change that often shifts the focus of entire divisions or departments. We can characterize it by thinking of it in this way: [Leaders] People come into a role, stay anywhere from a few months to a couple of years, and then move on.

Transient leadership can also be symptomatic of multiple systems at play within the organization. For example, our federal law enforcement agencies have a mandatory retirement age and risk assessments that can necessitate unexpected movement. This creates a culture of accelerated promotions and quick departures once you reach the highest levels within the organization.


Turnover’s Impact on the Execution of Organizational Strategy

Transient leadership can invigorate an organization – new leaders bring new lived experiences, management styles, and innovative ideas to the position.

However, what we’ve observed in most organizations is that transient leadership may have a negative impact on an organization’s strategy, given the lack of long-term leadership continuity.

For example, in the public and private sector alike, an organizational restructuring often occurs with new leadership. We’ve observed, however, that oftentimes these reorgs do not result in meaningful change and oftentimes exacerbate underlying issues at play before – during – after the reorganization. In organizations that have high turnover in leadership positions, reorganization efforts can actually negatively affect the overall leadership agenda and organizational strategy.

It’s important to remember, however, that while these transient leaders turnover often, the folks downstream typically do not. If not managed intentionally, these turnovers in leadership can cause frustration, amplify discontent, and can result in duplicative efforts and waste of agency resources.

Further, transient leadership causes unease for those in low-turnover positions. Naturally, many may begin to wonder about the security of their jobs or where they may end up if the organization is restructured. This uncertainty may lead to an exodus of talent. This puts the organization behind the eight ball in both staffing and the ability to achieve its mission. Similarly, shifts in leadership that result in strategy shifts may make it difficult to put the mission first. People must spend more time navigating the change than actually doing work. When this happens, both employee and customer experience may suffer.


Mitigating Leadership Risks

Here’s our shameless plug: a collaboratively crafted organizational strategy and great change management can help mitigate leadership risks! In the absence of that, here are four things to consider in service of developing a successful leadership strategy.

First, by enrolling all leadership levels in designing your organizational strategic plan and having a thoughtful conversation about leadership-agnostic approaches to strategy and change, leaders can heighten the overall commitment to the game plan to fulfill the mission. This approach can accelerate overall efficacy during periods of leadership stability and build resilience and continuity through times of change.

Second, enrolling high-potential performers on the cusp of leadership positions in strategy creation creates a pipeline of future leaders dedicated to fulfillment of the organizational strategy.

Third, ensuring the incentives system rewards leaders for forwarding the agreed upon strategy will help drive smoother transitions in a transient leadership environment.

Fourth, The Clearing recommends developing a communications strategy to keep those affected by change informed. We recently partnered with a transportation authority undertaking a workplace transformation that impacted nearly every office-based employee. We deployed an effective communication plan to ensure voices were heard, team members informed, and everyone understood the “why” behind the shift. Thanks to post-transformation survey results, we know employees felt informed and clear on expectations.


Top of Mind Takeaways for Transitional Leadership

It’s cliché, but change is both hard and inevitable – and that includes changes in leadership. To reiterate the theme from above, the best action a leader can do to mitigate the impact of change is to prepare their people for the change. In many cases, failing to plan is planning to fail – and the beauty of many of the changes that come with transient leadership is that they can be planned for. Enlisting a partner like The Clearing to help with the creation of the organizational strategy, taking into account the cultural impacts, the productivity impacts, and the uncertainties that accompany them will increase the likelihood of a smooth transition and meeting the mission.

If you lead an organization that adapts to transient leadership to drive strategy or you’ve recently rolled into a new leadership position, have questions about effectively embedding an organizational strategy that is not leader-dependent, or lessening the impact on your people, we’d love to chat. We can be reached anytime at and I look forward to hearing from you!