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ATD Blog

Subtle Ways Leaders Can Lose Control Of An Organization


Tue Nov 27 2012


(From Forbes) -- I say “subtle” in the title because there are a number of ways leaders can lose control of organizations that are quite dramatic: disastrous financial results, illegal or inappropriate activities, etc.  But while these latter can make headlines and receive considerable attention when they occur, they’re actually a lot less common than more prosaic issues that, over time, subtly undermine authority.

Following are four such issues I’ve observed over the course of a long career with several organizations.  Two basically stem from too little leadership and two from too much leadership (or rather, not the right kind of leadership – it’s forceful but ineffective).


1. Unwillingness to communicate bad news. There’s a natural, understandable tendency for leaders to not want to communicate bad or unpleasant news to a variety of constituencies – shareholders, employees, clients, regulators, etc.  After all, it is unpleasant – share prices may fall, bonuses may be effected, employees may grumble or want to leave, clients may choose to do business elsewhere.  Chief executives may sometimes view a company’s macro-level performance as a personal report card of sorts, and no one likes a bad report card.  The problem with  unwillingness to communicate bad news (unless the problem can be resolved quickly and completely) is that sooner or later it catches up with you.  And when it does, and when people – whoever the audience may be – realize they are not being leveled with, it undermines credibility.  And when a leader loses credibility, hold on authority is never far behind.

2. Surrounds himself (or herself) with people who tell the leader only what they think he wants to hear. This can have a weakening effect over time. While it may be tempting for a leader to surround himself with a management team that seldom disagrees (and makes for enjoyable staff meetings in the short term!), in the long term a team will suffer from a lack of clear independent voices and thoughtful dissent.  Legitimate problems will not be surfaced, and thus not addressed.   The leader, and the organization, lose the valuable benefit of multiple perspectives.  As a senior executive I once worked for used to say – wisely I always felt – “If you’re not paying me for my own opinions – if you’re just paying me to tell you what you want to hear – then you’re paying me too much.”

3. Oversees a fractured empire of warring fiefdoms.  Like point number 1, this is a consequence of too little leadership… combined with strong senior executives in subordinate roles.  When various parts of an organization  (certain businesses or product lines for example) are performing well, there’s an understandable tendency to give the managing executives wide latitude to run their own operations.   While this makes good sense up to a point, over time small empires may form amid the larger one.  While this isn’t inherently problematic, there’s a tendency for these strong subordinate leaders to compete with another, and think more about growing their own fiefdoms than about the good of the whole.  Over time employees and other constituencies may begin to wonder: Who really is the emperor, who really is in charge here?    The net effect:  An over-accommodating leader’s authority is diminished.

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