Dealing With Leadership Debt

cave to light

Leadership debt.

You feel it in the culture.

You hear it in the communication.

You taste it in the conflict.

But even more there this gnawing sense of anxiety.

It feels like a void.

Like the strands that should be connecting the organization are missing.

Every movement is a struggle.

Survival mode.

Negativity saturates the daily work experience.

Tasks are performed in isolation.

Meetings are battles of attrition.

Simple things become hard.

Hard things feel impossible.

Cynical comments wrapped in jest,

Reveal the underlying sentiment.

Like technological debt

Or financial debt,

Leadership debt can be extremely difficult to overcome.

To do so requires unrelenting commitment.

The highest priority.

A fundamental change of direction and action.

For all the reasons that organizations find themselves in leadership debt, there are actions we can take to recover.

  • Recognizing the problem – For many organizations, the experience of leadership debt can become so ingrained that it borders on invisible. Now we need an act of courage. To look one another in the eye and call this problem by name. To express the reality that is evidenced in the daily struggle. This is the first act of leadership.
  • Taking ownership – Those who will make this change a reality must stand in front of the organization and take responsibility. Believability will come later. For now, making a public commitment to a new direction will set the stage for the work to begin.
  • Charting a new course – We must dig deep to understand where we are now before embarking on the effort to build a vision for the future. And build that vision we must. How will it feel? How will our daily experience change? What values will we seek to express? How? Create a powerful, emotional picture before diving into the practical steps of how the change will be carried out. Start in short order with a few, very significant, very visible steps and proceed from there.
  • Committing to action – Every leader in the organization must be given the opportunity to challenge, question and understand the vision and the plan for change. They should be provided with the tools or training they need to succeed. Then they must be asked to commit. Not just in word, but in action. We must hold one another accountable.
  • Letting go – We may have to let go of old, comfortable habits. We may have to say goodbye to people who don’t share the vision or who benefited from the old system and can’t or won’t adapt. Any change includes things we will seek to stop doing as well as start doing. Some of those things will be hard to let go.
  • Meeting the challenges – The early lifting will be difficult. Progress may come slowly and in very small increments. Remember it may have taken years to reach the level of leadership debt present in the organization. It will not be dislodged easily. And yes, things may feel like they are getting worse before they get better. Some element of faith is needed here. You may not see it right away but if you are consistent in behaviors and action the change will begin, even if below the surface for a time.
  • Celebrating success – As stories of progress and new,¬†leadership outcomes emerge, be sure to celebrate and reward progress. Feed the new energy. Make the change visible for everyone. Use stories to make an emotional connection.
  • Planning for renewal¬†– With each new plateau reached, be prepared with new ideas and new energy to move the organization on to the next level. Remember we are working against the natural drift towards disorganization and decline. Building on success requires renewed effort.

As leadership debt is transformed into leadership wealth, the entire personality of the organization will change and the results will mirror this transformation. As John Maxwell reminds us, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.”


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