They Can’t All Be Winners: 4 Tips for Avoiding Chosen One Syndrome

In 1998, the Harvard Business Review published an article entitled, “The Set-Up-to-Fail Syndrome,” which described a scenario where employees perceived as weak performers “lived down” to their detractors’ lowest expectations. The syndrome was compared to the “Pygmalion Effect,” by which someone achieves greatness because others believe they are capable of doing so.

Identifying Potential Leaders

I was reminded of this recently as I took part in a discussion with the Services and Support Leadership Roundtable that I organized with services industry colleagues. In one of our first remote gatherings, we discussed how to identify potential leaders within an organization, as well as defined the skills those employees would need to develop in order to assume leadership roles down the line. In the end, we put
together a lengthy list of traits, skills, and competencies that could serve as an industry standard for career development.

During the discussion, we also considered a mashup of the Pygmalion/set-up-to-fail scenarios: What happens when you choose a future leader to groom as a successor, and it doesn’t work out as planned? What happens if that individual doesn’t live up to their potential or becomes arrogant and acts entitled?

Favoritism & Fallout

I’ve seen such a phenomenon pop up occasionally among up-and-coming leaders, and it’s one that every senior leader has probably observed at least a few times in their career. I call this the Chosen One Syndrome.

Who is the Chosen One? This is the employee that senior leadership appears to have anointed as the next generation or the future face of leadership. You probably know one – or have been one – or are viewed by others as one: they are fast-tracked; they can do no wrong. Such a designation immediately puts a target on that potential leader’s back—through no fault of their own, their peers or juniors
secretly hope they fail.

Make Good Choices

But when true Chosen One Syndrome kicks in, the future leader may gain a sense of entitlement, exuding arrogance that alienates their peers and—worse—convinces them they can stop trying to achieve. Or, in a second possible scenario, despite coaching by their managers and mentors, the Chosen One realizes they are out of their depth, incapable of performing their elevated role, and eventually they
are removed to another less-impactful position. The Chosen One is embarrassed, certainly, but to a certain degree, so are those who championed them.

This situation can be avoided, if the leaders and mentors involved take some precautionary steps, even before they designate an employee as the future face of the organization:

Be transparent.

To avoid resentment by and jealousy of those who aren’t “chosen,” it is critical that managers not play favorites. When you identify a future leader, it should be based on a standardized set of criteria that is made available to all employees. Each worker—regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religious beliefs, or choice of life partner—should have the same chance at an open position, with the opening being
announced publicly and the search process open to all who qualify. In the end, the best candidate will be the one who ticks off the most boxes on the list of qualifications.

Reset the bar continuously.

Once you’ve filled a role with a potential leader you’d like to groom, continue to ask more from them and re-assess their performance. If they consistently exceed expectations relative to their peers, they could coast along and never reach their own potential. I’ve experienced this, as have others in our Leadership Roundtable. Complacency doesn’t fuel leaders. Help re-set the bar so that “exceptional” is
relevant to them, not just relative to their peers.

Give them stretch goals.

It’s preferable for potential leaders to stretch goals, not just break them. Move them into weak spots to see how they respond and develop. I remember, early in my career, I was promoted when I was by far the youngest in our department. I enjoyed tackling the hardest, most complex problems and solving them. But once those tasks were done, I was bored. When my manager noticed, she said it wasn’t enough for me to be seen as a leader of my group; I should be working to lead across many groups. I was motivated to learn more and go above and beyond, and that made an incredible difference in my career path.

Being designated a future leader should not be seen as the reward in itself; if you want the Chosen One to stay hungry, keep learning, remain motivated, and push their organization forward, you need to continuously challenge them, particularly in the areas where they show weakness. Acknowledging their weaknesses is critical in the employee’s development, because good leaders are willing to seek improvement where needed; if that’s not possible, they can compensate by hiring people with complementary skill sets to round out their team.

And what happens when the anointed one decides to leave the organization for greener pastures?

Perhaps I should have mentioned the #1 rule for avoiding Chosen One Syndrome: Don’t choose just one. Always keep an eye on your team (and others’) for smart, motivated talent looking to learn. Cultivate multiple sources and your succession bench will always have team members ready to jump in and play to win.

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