Gut Check: Have You Become A Complacent Leader?

Vince Molinaro, Ph.D. Blog

Four days. Four countries. Six cities. This is how I spent this past week, traveling through the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland and Germany as part of the global launch of my book, The Leadership Contract.

The highlights of the week were spending time with European business leaders and working with our local teams.

On Tuesday morning, I had a particularly lively discussion with a group of 40 C-Suite leaders in the Dutch city of Eindhoven.

What got the conversation going? Well, I shared data collected through surveys of Lee Hecht Harrison clients showing pretty clearly that a lack of leadership accountability is truly a global problem.

In our last batch of survey results, 72% of European companies said that leadership accountability is a critical business issue, and only 31% are satisfied with the degree of accountability demonstrated by their leaders.

At the end of the session I asked the leaders to reflect on their own accountability. One CEO was pretty blunt in assessing his own performance. “This session has been extremely valuable as I realized I have not been leading in an accountable manner. I’ve let myself slip and become complacent.”

I asked him to elaborate on what he thought he meant by complacent. He said he has stopped challenging himself on a daily basis. He fell into a routine and was  just going through the motions. He never once questioned whether he was truly stepping up and performing all the tasks and duties of an accountable leader.

I really admired his self-awareness and courage. And I realized he had hit on a real problem facing many leaders today.

No matter how committed you might be as a leader, there will be times when you slip a little. Worse, like the Dutch CEO, most of us are probably unaware that it has happened. The Leadership Contract session jolted him a bit and created the impetus for him to assess his own leadership. Not everyone gets that wake-up call.

I wondered, do otherwise strong leaders fall prey to complacency? As I travelled through Europe, I began to wonder about when complacency sets in.

I don’t believe complacency is something that happens overnight. Instead, it creeps ever so slowly, in a way that we might not even notice it when it has taken hold of us. We get lulled into complacency.

How does this happen?

If you are struggling under the weight of a heavy workload, you can feel completely overworked to the point of burnout. That can trigger complacency.

It can also come if you lose your passion for your business or your role. This is when your job as a leader stops being a calling, and starts feeling more like a job. That’s a dangerous place for leaders to be, in my opinion.

Maybe your organization is facing some critical challenges. Perhaps the culture is dysfunctional, and no matter what you try to do to fix it, nothing seems to work. This can wear out even the most passionate leaders, and lead to a state of complacency.

Have any of these things ever happened to you? Can you relate to this leader’s situation? If this describes your current state of mind, how do you break free of complacency?

After the Eidenhoven session, I provided the participants with a small Leadership Contract card. It was inspired by a client who had read a copy of the manuscript of the book before it was published. He said he was really moved by the book, and now was going to ask himself four questions every single day to ensure that he would always be a truly accountable leader:

  1. What is the leadership decision I need to make today that will ensure that I will show up in a truly accountable manner?
  2. What obligation must I live up to today so that I’m ensuring to leave my company in a stronger place?
  3. What hard work must I tackle head-on? Is there a tough conversation you need to have with a colleague, but have been avoiding? If you are complacent, chances are you aren’t doing this sort of stuff and it’s making you weaker as a leader.
  4. Finally, what relationship must I build with a peer or colleague in my company so that we can work more effectively together?

I always remind leaders that leadership is a very demanding role. It’s hard to be consistently good or even great at it. When you struggle, it’s easy to become complacent unless you are constantly checking your commitment to the job.

The Dutch CEO reminded me how important it is to us to be brutally honest with ourselves, and challenge ourselves if we’ve begun to slip into complacency.

This week’s leadership gut check question asks: have you become a complacent leader?

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