It is not unusual for me to be called into a once highly successful company that is beginning to falter. Numbers are down. People are leaving. Competition is ‘eating their lunch.’ Individuals in the C-Suite are covertly engaged in job searches. Gossip and organizational malaise are escalating. Most noteworthy, the board has moved from a collaborative partner to becoming a difficult landlord. All tell-tale signs of leadership decline.
When the influence of leadership fades and when confidence in leadership wanes, it directly impacts everything and everyone in the enterprise. Unless addressed, bad things will happen.
Being aware of the warning signs of leadership decline will help address these issues before it is too late. Addressing these signs early-on will avoid major damage to the enterprise in the future.
Some warning signs of leadership decline along with some recommendations to consider include:
A Shift in Attention
Commonly, the leader loses sight of what is important. The intense focus that hurled the leader to the top disappears. The leader becomes distracted by the trappings of industry recognition, making money and notoriety. The ego that once was a powerful ally now has turned into the adversary.
The leader stops thinking big, and starts to focus on smaller objectives. This leads to increased micromanaging. The leader starts to get caught up in details better left to others.
The leader becomes excessively concerned with the inconsequential and unimportant. The decline is hastened by the leader’s bend toward perfectionism and self-centeredness.
The clarion sign is the leader’s obsession with "doing" rather than "being." The power and effectiveness of a leader is always a result of who the leader is and thus, what the leader does flows naturally from this existential place. Being is the leader’s headwater of their values, vision, and character. Who the leader “is” determines the power of their leadership.
As is often the case, a leader becomes far too action-oriented and, in the process, loses touch with the more important development of self.
Recommendation: Self-development, self-examination, and individuation work must consistently be on the leader’s calendar. Steady work on self-awareness, self-development, self-examination is the most powerful antidote to leadership decline.
Loss of Purpose - Poor Communication
Clarity of purpose brings laser focus. When purpose becomes opaque and ambiguous, it results in a lack of focus which invariably leads to poor communication.
Followers cannot possibly understand a leader's purpose when the leader is not clear on what their purpose is. When leaders are unclear about their purpose, they hide their confusion and uncertainty with vague communication.
Usually, along with a lack of clarity of purpose, leaders fall into the telepathy trap. They begin to believe that their committed followers will automatically understand their goals and know what they want without being told.
Clarity of purpose is the platform for effective communication. It is this clarity that propels straight communication - where you mean what you say and you say what you mean. It is the commitment to purpose that drives the leader to be direct. It is the driving intention of purpose that empowers the leader to have those difficult conversations.
Recommendation: Add the following question to a leader’s 360 assessment: “On a scale from 1-10, how clearly does the leader communicate?” In the leader’s performance review, make sure you revisit the leader’s communication defaults and avoidances from their personality profiles (e.g., Hogan’s, Insight, Enneagram and the like). The leader and the assessor need to be aware of where the leader evades straight-talk. Also, press on what the leader needs to say but is not saying.
Leaders have pushed their enterprise to industry-wide recognized success. The leader is perceived as somewhat of an icon in the industry. They have “made it.” Their name is known. They are invited to speak at industry events. They are asked to be interviewed for YouTube videos. They have a multitude of requests coming their way. “A star is born” phenomenon is present.
This is also the time when leaders feel they are most at risk, beginning to be driven by the fear of failure. Past successes create pressure for leaders: "Will I be able to sustain outstanding performance?" "What will I do for an encore?" The longer a leader is successful, the higher the leader’s perceived price for failure.
When driven by the fear of failure, leaders are unable to take reasonable risks. They want to do only the tried and proven; attempts at innovation - typically their key to initial success - diminish or disappear altogether.
Recommendation: If you have not created a “committed listener,” either in the form of a legitimate board of directors, a reputable hard-line external coach; or the leader is in a group such as YPO, EO, CEO or Visage – a group that can recognize “chicken-shit;” having a committed listener is mandatory. Who will hold the leader accountable to drive the enterprise from fulfilling the ever-expanding vision and operating consistent with core values and purpose? The committed-listener structure keeps the leader willing to play at risk.
Decline of Integrity
A leader's credibility is the result of two aspects: what he or she does (actions) and who he or she is (character). A discrepancy between these two aspects invariably creates an integrity problem.
The highest principle of leadership is integrity. When integrity ceases to be a leader's top priority, when a compromise of ethics is rationalized away as necessary for the "success of the company," when achieving results becomes more important than the means to their achievement - that is the moment the leader slides quickly down the slippery slope of integrity decline.
Often such leaders see their followers as pawns, a mere means to an end, they confuse manipulation with leadership. These leaders lose empathy. They cease to be people "perceivers" and become people "pleasers," using popularity or politics to ease the guilt of lapsed integrity.
It becomes obvious when there is a conflict between the leader’s character and how the leader acts? It is glaringly noticeable when compromise and politics have overwhelmed leadership. A common symptom of loss of integrity is when the people the leader depends on begin to feel used or taken for granted.
Recommendation: The board should include in the leader’s contract a “condition of satisfaction,” which defines a performance review process and protocol. Besides the 360, and the strategic goals and major initiatives as the leader’s markers, we recommend a well-defined performance review. Also at this review, goals and objectives should be set for the next twelve months in the areas needing improvement, accompanied by clear action steps and defined measurable outcomes. Lost Love When leaders lose sight of the dream that compelled them to accept the responsibility of leadership, they find themselves working for causes that mean little to them. They must stick to what they love and what motivated them in the first place. If a leader doesn’t love what they’re doing and why they’re doing it – it shows. Love brings passion. Love brings emotional investment. Love brings courage. Love brings your full self to the engagement.
If passion, emotional expression, and courage are replaced by apathy, indifference, and cowardice – leadership is definitely on the decline.
Recommendation: An intervention for truth-telling is required. Successful leaders do what they love and do it well, which is much more meaningful than any metric to an organization. If the leader is not loving what they are doing, of course correct the leader or ask them to leave. Leadership without passion, emotional engagement, and courage isn’t truly leadership.
Heed the Signs – Address the Signs If you are a board member, an investor, or the leader, I strongly recommend you consider these warning signs of leadership decline. Do not be afraid to take an honest look. If any of the warnings ring true, act.
The good news is that by paying attention to these signs and heeding their warnings, you can avoid disaster and sustain the kind of leadership that is healthy and fulfilling.
Sometimes as a leader, when you recognize these signs, it is best to tell the truth to the other stakeholders. Although it brings your position as a leader into question, it restores integrity. As they say. “the truth will set you free.” In this case, “the truth will stop the decline of leadership.”