There is a thin line between a leader who has failed and a leader who is failing. This is a line that you never want to cross. One of the attributes of true leadership is the ability to realize when you're failing. Leadership positions often come with blind spots, groupthink, and a cadre of yes-people.
At times, leaders may not engage in careful self-monitoring. In fact, they may confuse inertia for forward movement, mistake stalling for reflection, and mix up procrastination for thoroughness. In history, failed leaders rarely return. Your challenge is focus on the cues that will let you know that you're on the slippery slope so you can turn it around before you fall off the edge.
Here are five questions you should ask yourself:
1. Are you making more references to the past and future than to the present? Failing leaders engage in the rhetoric of what came before and what will come. They dwell in the quagmire, obstacles, and challenges that they've inherited, and take up the flag of the aspirations, dreams, and goals that they would like to achieve. It's fine to talk about the past and future, but only as bookends for the present. Failing leaders aren't focused enough on the reality of the moment, and they are not looking clearly at those things that need to be executed or those things that need to be immediately achieved. You can reference the past to accentuate the difficulty of moving ahead, and you can use the future to inspire others to succeed with you, but focus on the present.
2. Do you over process the problem? Failing leaders often shy away from taking action by engaging in continuous processing. They will study, analyze, and revisit. They will convene endless committees and sub-committees and whittle away at the organization's vitality by processing things to death. They will gather data. They will exhaust best practices. From the outside, it looks like they are on the path to making the most rational decisions and earnestly selecting the best course of action, but from another more subtle perspective, they are simply avoiding action.
3. Are you perpetually chasing a huge consensus? Seeking legitimization for their ideas, failing leaders not only look for consensus, but look for overwhelming consensus. They try to get as many people on their side as possible, often overreaching and going well beyond what's necessary because of their own insecure judgment or political paranoia. They try to entice as many partners as they can to join their effort. By dragging as many as they can onboard, what they are actually doing is diluting the essential vigorous core of support. In trying to achieve perfect consensus, they only achieve mediocrity.
4. Is your inner circle drifting away? In the early days of your leadership, your inner circle will be enthusiastically supportive. Failing leaders silence their inner circle, creating "yes-people" who never tell the emperor if he or she is wearing no clothes. Over time, the best and brightest will drift away. In your blindness, you may justify their departure, but if examined closely, departures of your inner circle may be the first warning sign that your leadership is failing.
5. Is your head full of excuses? Most leaders are smart. Even when failing, they won't publically list excuses or cast blame, fearing the stigma of being a "whiner." Nothing is worse than a leader who makes excuses. Everyone knows this. It isn't so much what you tell others--your team, the board, or your employees. It's about what you tell yourself. If at night you think of excuses and come up with scapegoats to blame, it's time to take an honest look at your leadership.
I often talk about the necessity for leaders to be pragmatic and the importance of leaders having the skills of tactical execution. For this to occur, leaders have to look their leadership with a clear eye and a stoic focus. Acknowledging that your leadership is on the brink of failing is the first step to turning it around.