There has been a lot written about leadership rotation and succession, how organizations replace leaders who are less-than-successful, and how organizations transition out the tired old guard and bring in the new leaders to redirect, re-energize, and reinvigorate the organization. Whether a large organization with a long rich history, or a small start-up venture, leadership is the essential source of organizational energy and direction.

Sometimes the leadership transition occurs at a glacial rate, and by the time it happens, the failed leadership has taken a toll on the organization. The question remains: Why aren't ineffective leaders replaced earlier? Why are their limitations not noticed sooner? Why doesn't someone step in and replace the CEO or the section head, especially if they are not doing their job?

Leaders don't move from competence to incompetence overnight, but to paraphrase Douglas MacArthur, they slowly drift away. The challenge is to identify their vulnerabilities while they are drifting, rather than wait until there is a crisis when there is no choice except to urgently replace them.

All organizations must be capable of identifying leaders who are drifting. Indeed, leaders concerned with both their personal development and the well being of the organization need to be able to gauge whether they are drifting to determine if they need to take steps to correct their behavior or leadership style.

There are at least seven ways the leadership drift can be identified--either your own or that of others in your organization.

1. They forget the core mission

Leaders who become preoccupied with side issues or chase down tangential goals rarely have the time or the energy to fulfill their core mission. These leaders aren't idle, in fact they're probably working harder then everyone else--only they're working on all the wrong things.

Pragmatic Tip: Leaders should reassess their core mission on a weekly or monthly basis and make they're making progress.

2. They ignore the primary coalition

All too often leaders forget those allies who helped them achieve success. Leaders who alienate their base aren't doing themselves any favors. If they lose touch with the very people who provided the groundswell of support and the creativity and energy to implement fresh ideas they will find that their agenda will be stalled.

Pragmatic Tip: Leaders should make a point to meet with their primary base regularly to make sure they are satisfied with how things are moving. Be grateful for their support but never assume it will last.

3. They don't stay updated

Unfortunately some leaders hibernate once they have achieved the position, status, or seniority that they have worked tirelessly to attain. These leaders will continue to work within old processes and resist change because they feel any change will threaten their hard-won gains.

Pragmatic Tip: Leaders need to stay on top of industry news and periodicals and attend industry events. Leaders need to embrace change and not shrink from it.

4. They don't monitor their Number Twos

Leaders often rely on close colleagues to maintain control and give direction to their agendas. The problem is that leaders in drift over-rely on the second-in-command. Indeed, leaders become dependent on them. These individuals establish a mode of grounded control where they are the ones who are driving the organization, because the drifting leader does not keep an eye on their colleague's emerging power. When a leader is in drift, the support actors may take control.

Pragmatic Tip: Leaders need to keep tabs on who is pushing which agenda to keep the power players in check.

5. They look too far ahead

Once leaders reach a certain level of success, they content themselves by only looking at the big picture. They obsess over grand strategy, mission, and culture and gradually lose sight of the day-to-day operations of their team, start-up, or organization. As a result they lose control of the very processes that keep the business ticking.

Pragmatic tip: Effective leaders don't get lost in the world of big ideas and industry takeovers. They buckle down on the essential components of the job that keep the lights on.

6. They don't take the temperature

As leaders settle into their position they may drift when they lose touch with the daily troubles and struggles of their staff and, in turn, create an environment of subtle disenfranchisement. Leaders lose control when they start making decisions and polices without regard to how their decisions will affect others in the immediate workgroup--or for CEOs, the staff throughout the organization.

Pragmatic tip: Leaders need to socialize, discuss, and reach out and remind staff that they are there.

7. They assume omnipotence

Lastly, leaders can drift when they allow their power to corrupt their choices and derail routine processes. When leaders feel their ideas and demands should take precedence over everything else, the real work grinds to a standstill. These leaders may also resist open debate and discussion. Omnipotent leaders who feel that they never make mistakes and hastily blame others for failures create a conflict spiral.

Pragmatic tip: Humility is key. Leaders need to encourage debate and discussion.


Nothing is more important to leadership than a degree of self-awareness, an ability to reflect on your strengths, weaknesses, and whether you are on top of the game. The problem is that the onset of leadership drift is subtle, and demands that you continuously focus. These seven points can serve as an anchoring device as you reflect on whether you've become a leader in drift.