Regressive Leadership

By John Gronski

I recently had a conversation with some junior leaders at a company I was providing leadership consulting and coaching. When I asked them about the challenges they were having with leaders they worked for, a common theme surfaced. Many of them identified that their leaders continued to drift down into their previous leadership positions, attempting to solve problems that these junior leaders felt they had well in hand.

Leadership Challenges

I had seen similar problems during my military career. Occasionally I would observe leaders who had just gotten promoted into a higher-level leadership position, drift back into their previous role when there was no operational need to do that. I observed brigade commanders and battalion commanders getting overly involved one level down.

At organizations I have consulted for, I have seen directors and VPs regress to leading at a level below their current responsibility. This was done for no apparent operational reason. The junior leaders in those roles were doing fine leading their people and making decisions.

Regressive Leadership

I call this phenomenon “regressive leadership”. It is a case where leaders who have just been promoted drift back to their previous role in the organization. This is because they were very good in that role. That is one of the reasons they received a promotion. They drift back to their previous role because they know it well and they feel comfortable there. They regress back to their comfort zone within the organization.

Newly promoted leaders must keep this phenomenon in mind because it is easy for a leader to be drawn backward. Newly promoted leaders must take deliberate steps to prevent this from happening.

Drifting Back Hurts Your Organization

When a leader drifts backward they can send a message to their subordinate leaders, whether intended or not, that they do not trust them. This can create issues throughout the organization and cause a great deal of friction. It soils relationships and costs time and money.

As a leader, you must develop future leaders. You must take on the role of coaching your subordinate leaders so they could develop and thrive. If you are doing subordinate leaders’ work for them rather than coaching them on how they should be doing their job, the leaders you are charged to develop will not learn important lessons.

When a leader focuses on doing a task of a subordinate leader, then the leader is probably not doing the work that they are getting paid to do.  All leaders have certain authorities that come with their level of leadership. There are expectations that leaders at various levels are performing certain tasks commensurate with their level of authority. If a higher-level leader is focused on doing work one level down, rather than the work they are expected to do things get missed and the organization suffers. Leaders are in their positions because they have skills and experience others do not have.

Preventing Regressive Leadership

The first step to preventing regressive leadership is to be aware that it is a common occurrence. Many have fallen into that trap.

When I took command of an Army National Guard Division, I told the four brigade commanders I had reporting to me that I already commanded a brigade, and I did not want to do that again. I would be busy enough commanding a division without doing their job too. This seemed to put them at ease. I also gave them permission, or rather I told them it was imperative, to talk to me if they felt I was drifting back into their leadership position. This helped to keep me in my lane.

When you receive a promotion to a higher-level leadership position be candid with your direct reports. Let them know you intend to focus on leading at your level but give them the opening to have a frank discussion with you if they think you are drifting into their area of leadership. Remember, trust can be broken by perceived as well as intentional acts. Having open communication is essential to keeping trust alive.

Another technique is to give trusted advisors on your staff permission to have a conversation with you if you begin to drift backward. Allowing people on your team to have those frank conversations with you will help keep you on point.

Lead at the Level Expected of You

Leaders must lead at the level expected of them. You must trust your subordinate leaders to fulfill their responsibilities. If one of your subordinate leaders is struggling, the key is to provide coaching, performance counseling, or retraining. The correct approach is not to do their job for them. If coaching, performance counseling, and retraining do not work, then unfortunately you may have to make a change.

When you do someone else’s work for them, not only don’t they learn but you will be neglecting your own work. You are abdicating your role as a leader if you do not lead at the level expected of you.

Read more of John Gronski’s leadership blogs here

For leadership development resources visit https://johngronski.com/

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