The number one obligation of a leader is to grow. Grow himself, grow his or her team and along with the team grow their organization. Years ago, I read a bestselling leadership book where the author declared that the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality, and I agreed with his assertion. However, since that time I’ve known many leaders who defined reality but still failed to grow, some losing their jobs, while others lost their entire business. Despite all other efforts of a leader, if he cannot grow himself, a team and the organization he is absolutely expendable.
In addition to accepting responsibility for the obligation to grow, an effective leader should also be aware of growth’s number one enemy: decline. While some companies believe they are neither growing nor declining, but are “holding their own,” this is fallacy. There really is no middle ground, for all the while you appear to be holding ground, you are planting either the seeds that will create growth or facilitate decline, the results just haven’t shown up yet. Thus, you are either in a growth mode, or declining. Just because you can’t see one or the other at the moment doesn’t mean it’s not in the works.
Decline is tricky, in fact it’s a lot like a staged disease: a cancer. Cancer is difficult to detect in its early stages, but it’s much easier to cure if you do. By the time it becomes evident it is so obvious that many people will know about it. But, unfortunately, at that late stage it’s much more difficult to cure. The same holds true for your decline in your business. If you can catch decline in its early stages, before it becomes obvious, you can take steps to reverse it prior to it diminishing your bottom line. The problem is that most leaders haven’t learned a technique that alerts them to the fact they are going to decline before the decline manifests. To help you with this, I’m going to outline the four stages of decline, and offer an early warning sign to help you head it off before it becomes a major issue. We’ll start by assuming you’re at the top of your game and that all is going well. At that point, when you’re on a roll, how does decline get a foothold within your organization? Take a look:
Stage I: Success breeds complacency. At stage one, you’re making money, having fun, and maybe even breaking a record or two. Interestingly, success is the first stage of decline, because if you allow success to drain your drive you’ll become complacent and take the first step backwards to decline. Complacency is defined as being “calmly content, or smugly self-satisfied,” which is exactly what happens if you allow prosperity to drain urgency. It is common when you’re successful to lose your killer instinct, and start sitting on the ball rather than run up the score. There are three primary factors at work during stage one that demote you from success to complacency and permit the “calm contentedness and smug self-satisfaction” to take hold:
- Aloof leadership. Because results are solid, the leaders start spending more time in their offices maintaining (or on the golf course), than they spend in the trenches acting as a catalyst and leading their team. More of their day is spent with paperwork than with people-work, and the previous rhythm begins to miss steps and regress as a result.
- Diminished PTP. PTP is pressure to perform. Successful teams often lose their hunger. The leaders begin to maintain rather than stretch, and accountability becomes lax as it doesn’t seem as necessary since the numbers are good overall.
- No visible outside crisis or threat. The absence of an outside crisis or threat fans the fires of complacency, enlarging the comfort zone of team members. The sense of urgency and level of alertness are drained from the culture, lulling the team into a false sense of security that all is well and that they’ll never see another poor day.
Stage 2: Complacency breeds lost focus. When you’re in a calm, smug state you lose your focus on the diligent, daily, disciplines that made you successful in the first place. People may still be busy, but unfocused people often confuse activity with accomplishment. They’re susceptible to doing a lot of work each day, but not doing enough of what matters most. In dealerships with lost focus, it’s common to mistake motion for progress.
State 3: Lost focus breeds inconsistency. Naturally, unfocused leaders become inconsistent in their daily approach to essential disciplines like recruiting, training, one-on-ones, accountability, adherence to strict processes and more. Because they are calm, content, satisfied and unfocused, they merely dabble with the disciplines most vital to increasing their success, executing them only on the “good” days, when they feel like it, when it’s easy, cheap, popular, or convenient; rather than consistently, without excuse and regardless of the cost.
Stage 4: Inconsistency precedes decline. Inconsistency in right disciplines precedes decline in many endeavors: physical health, marriage, financial health and business is no different. By the time you get to stage four, the decline has normally begun to show. This means it’ll be harder to reverse and take longer to correct. However, don’t miss that the opportunity that noticing inconsistency affords here. Knowing that inconsistency precedes decline, facing reality about where you’ve become inconsistent provides an incredibly accurate early warning sign that you’re headed for trouble. What you must do to take advantage of this bellwether for decline is evaluate each department and determine where the team has become inconsistent, because you can rest assured that decline will eventually show up there, it’s only a matter of time. By looking for, and correcting, inconsistencies in vital disciplines you can turn back the trend leading you to decline before the decline itself shows up. For instance, if your managers have stopped consistently training, recruiting, or holding others accountable, the performance decline may not show up overnight. But it will certainly show up over time. By quickly detecting and addressing the inconsistency and getting your team back on track, you may never have to suffer the decline much, if at all.
In order to fulfill a leader’s number one obligation, to grow, exercising the awareness and demonstrating the maturity necessary to face realities about where you’ve gotten off track is a non-negotiable leadership discipline. Perhaps today would be a great time for an “inconsistency audit” with your management team. After all, there is little that makes one look more foolish than grappling with decline and wondering “how’d this happen?” when you simply missed the danger signs that were there all along.