The Leadership Death Spiral: Management by Data and Discipline

There’s a shortage of good leaders… and employees know it.

Lots of people want to get into leadership positions. And many are willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen.

I have always believed that those anxious to hold these positions will generally be focused on the positives of the promotion, e.g. opportunity to grow, execute on strategies, develop people, expand their influence, get results etc. Or they will be focused on the more selfish aspects of a promotion, e.g. escaping mundane tasks of a former role, achieving a specific title, prestige, perks, or even being “over people”. The challenge though, is that they’ll interview almost identically. They will say the same things, talk about the same strategies, and highlight the same objectives. But those trying to escape and pursue selfish objectives will eventually leave havoc in their wake. A Gallup study claims that we get it wrong 82% of the time when hiring leaders. Another Gallup study conducted in 2012 shows that employee engagement is at 30% in the U.S. and 13% worldwide. There’s a shortage of good leaders… and employees know it.

If we take a closer look we can see a cycle that exists and deteriorates a leader’s credibility, damages employee morale and generates turnover and loss of talent. I call it the Leadership Death Spiral.

The Death Spiral happens in three phases.

1. A departure from sound fundamentals

The higher you go in the organization the more pressure there is to step away from the fundamentals of the frontline and focus on strategy, innovation, new initiatives and projects. This can keep leaders from keeping their own skills sharp and diminishes opportunities to demonstrate “best practices” for team alignment and overall performance. It also makes it more difficult for a leader to stay in touch with the evolving challenges their team may face in their work. Whether a shift of focus from the frontline is by choice or by a lack of prioritization, when it happens, a leader has created a small gap between themselves and their employees. The larger this gap becomes the less likely a leader will be to jump in and help a struggling subordinate with a task or challenge they face. These are often the most challenging tasks related to a role, and would have the highest impact on team morale and performance and would likely yield the most benefit of expert demonstration, supervised practice and facilitated success.

2. Loss of credibility

The above scenario, repeated over time does two things. 1) it distances that leader from the things they did best to ensure their own success, and pulls them further from practicality and deeper into theory. It “dulls the saw”. 2) It causes leaders to miss opportunities to facilitate positive experiences and reinforce credibility for employees trying to master new skills. When this happens, credibility is lost and the advice and coaching they provide (now based on theory or “what I used to do”) in lieu of purposeful demonstration loses its effectiveness. Even if the leader doesn’t acknowledge the loss of credibility, their teams will. It’s in this stage that managers can lose the right to coach.

3. Retreat

When a leader has distanced themselves so far from the difficult tasks their teams face and have tarnished their credibility through a famine of demonstrated competence, they are ripe for retreat to the last resort. Managing by data and discipline. Data because it is factual, tangible evidence that in many cases can’t be refuted because it is a result of human behavior (reports submitted, projects completed, calls made, customers serviced etc.) And discipline because it is used to make up for a loss of respect that resulted from a lack of credibility.

The Death Spiral creates the kind of leaders employees complain about and leave companies over. These leaders run reports and hand out discipline without ever getting in the trenches with their people. “Coaching” is a review of a bar graph, spreadsheet or a generated report around outcomes vs the skills needed to improve them. These conversations are one sided and usually do more damage than good. In these circumstances teams lose quality employees, culture is drained of morale and companies lose money in hiring and turnover costs. It’s like trying to improve the performance of a golfer without ever discussing their swing.

Escaping the Leadership Death Spiral

You can escape the Leadership Death Spiral. It takes humility, and grit, and requires you to go back to basics. In some cases you may have to refresh your memory on what made you successful. You may have to shake off some of the rust in private before you get back to demonstrating what best practices look like for the team. But it can be done, and it’s worth it.

Finally, you can avoid this Death Spiral by staying close to your people, thoughtfully and purposefully demonstrating skills that keep your own approach fresh and cultivate your own credibility and the loyalty and respect of those you lead.

There is a shortage of good leaders… but employees are looking for them.

How have you seen the Leadership Death Spiral in your career?

Greer Method Complete Coaching provides one on one coaching for executives and business owners. Through expert coaches, habit locking technology, and proven processes we help leaders create, manage, and sustain personal and professional performance.

Jared J. Greer is the founder of Greer Method Complete Coaching. He is an executive coach, 6-time Ironman finisher, marathoner, ultra-marathoner, husband, and father of four.

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