How to Avoid Leadership Drift

Business is an active, demanding endeavor. Only those who consistently apply themselves succeed. Organizations that thrive require leaders who actively dream, plan, engage, solve, pursue and network. It’s a lot of work, and there’s no finish line.

But no one can keep up the pace indefinitely. Every leader experiences profound peaks and valleys, seasons of being on track or feeling lost. Organizations flourish when their leaders are in sync and on their game, and they flounder when their leaders drift off course.

Leadership drift is increasingly responsible for management failure and turnover. Many leaders face forceful influences and events that detrimentally change them, diminishing their organizational influence and reputation. Drifting off course is a subtle process that can gradually steer leaders in the wrong direction.

All leaders experience drift at some point in their careers. The greatest danger is failing to recognize it and taking steps to reverse it. Prolonging a short stretch of drift can render it irreversible, leading to career and team failures. Fortunately, leaders can take concrete steps to prevent irrevocable consequences.

Fortunately, leaders can take concrete steps to prevent irrevocable consequences. However, since drift is primarily an unconscious issue, leaders generally need a second set of eyes to recognize it and bring it to the forefront. Even when recognized, drift is a critical topic best mitigated through the helpful resources of a qualified leadership coach.

Signs and Symptoms

As the word implies, “drift” is a loss of direction or purposefulness. Leaders who have forgotten their core mission have drifted, explains Cornell University organizational-behavior professor Samuel Bacharach, PhD, in “How to Avoid Leadership Drift” (Inc.com, April 2016). Drifting manifests in a variety of ways, signaling that leaders have distanced themselves from their roles. Signs include:

  • Apathy: Loss of interest or control
  • Coasting on past accomplishments
  • Concession of principles or work ethic
  • Hands-off management style
  • Isolation from colleagues
  • Resistance to feedback

Just as a boat slowly drifts from shore, leadership drift slowly progresses and may be observed only after a significant occurrence. Drifting leaders eventually cause their organizations to veer off course, with potentially devastating implications.

Why Leaders Drift

All leaders endure impactful changes or trials. Troubling life events can profoundly affect one’s behavior, mindset or motivation, notes Brigette Tasha Hyacinth, MBA, in Purpose Driven Leadership: Building and Fostering Effective Teams (independently published, 2017). Challenges often shuffle priorities and strain perspective:

  • A loss of a family member, marital crisis, health scare or financial calamity can turn a leader’s world upside down, and one’s focus can quickly blur.
  • Burnout can leave leaders with no gas left in the tank and no energy or desire to maintain the required pace.
  • Alternatively, leaders who are denied new challenges or goals will lose interest in, and enthusiasm for, their jobs.
  • Leaders burned in the past by setbacks or failures may build resistance to risk-taking.
  • Rapid success or advancement can lead to self-absorption, and ultimately derail a leader’s career.

Drift’s Damages

Drifting from one’s appointed responsibilities has consequences for leaders, their people and the organization. Initial signs often go unnoticed. It’s vitally important to spot them in time to prevent a prolonged drift that cripples the organization.

Leadership drift’s most immediate effects hit the operations level. Leaders who lose track of their purpose and discount critical duties cede control and oversight, causing a variety of setbacks: missed deadlines, ruined efficiencies, costly mistakes and poor financials. Problems may emerge slowly, but they can cascade rapidly.

Operational stumbles are often accompanied by damage to human capital. Setbacks and challenges give rise to employee dissatisfaction, low morale and production deficits. Employee frustration compounds operational dysfunction, and the downward spiral continues.

Drifting leaders are likely to miss important tactical information concerning day-to-day happenings, which handicaps their decision-making abilities. When they make poor decisions and fail to perform due diligence, outcomes suffer—along with reputations.

Drifting leaders also miss opportunities. They forfeit their ability to make improvements, changes or corrections, especially when problems result from their lack of oversight. Missed opportunities tarnish leaders’ legacies.

Drifting is a common cause of leadership reassignment, demotion or dismissal. In their shortsightedness, drifting leaders often blame their environment, team or upper management for their misfortune. A qualified leadership coach can help leaders grasp the internal reasons for drift.

Drift’s most unfortunate outcome is a loss of values, Hyacinth asserts. Conceding on excellence and accepting mediocrity lead to habitually cutting corners, justifying mistakes and lowering standards. The organization is ripe for failure, making victims of every employee.

Conquering Drift

Drifting leaders rarely have an accurate picture of what’s happening to (or inside) them, so the highest priority is a proper assessment by a trusted colleague, mentor or, optimally, a qualified leadership coach. An honest evaluation offers observations, feedback and direction, allowing leaders to better grasp the reasons for drift. Regular assessments are beneficial to tracking progress, tuning areas of difficulty and determining when the desired improvements are achieved.

When leaders understand drift’s underlying issues, they can reclaim the passion they once had for their jobs. They’ll take stock of what they value and reassess what they want to do. Reevaluating career goals allows them to put drift in perspective and reestablish their purpose.

Leaders must relearn some motivational basics:

  • We achieve satisfaction only by applying ourselves.
  • We fulfill our roles by serving and enhancing others, not ourselves.
  • Drift won’t keep us safe or preserve our positions; rather, it drives our decline.
  • We must catch and reverse any tendency to “check out” through continuous self-reflection and honesty.

Executive coaches have the tools to help leaders identify their susceptibilities and make corrections. Addressing problems early can help prevent full-blown drift—a leader’s way of surrendering to dissatisfaction after sensing a battle loss. Leaders must fight the urge to withdraw, remain actively engaged and invested, and find the motivation to endure even the most challenging setbacks. Those who monitor their performance with an accountability system can successfully prevent, reverse and repair drift.

In order to prevent full-blown drift, in my role as an executive master certified coach, I support you identify your susceptibilities and make correction.

Feel free to pass this newsletter on to friends and acquaintances should you think they might benefit from it.

I offer a 30-minute telephone consultation, which will be scheduled at no cost to you. Request at www.coachmoty.com or by e-mail. I also welcome your referrals.

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Moty Koppes is a certified master coach providing you with personal development, life coaching, relationship coaching, communication skills, personal power, life balance, career coaching, productivity enhancement, executive coaching and stress reduction in Newport Beach, Orange County, Southern California.