More Stage 3 Decline - The Denial of Risk and Peril

Stage 3 Gets Worse and Worse (and Worse)
Great Leadership Lessons, Note 27

Here are several signs that decline is in the third stage. In How the Mighty Fall, Collins gives many examples of great organizations, who moved into decline and how these features were at work in the decline. These stories are quite powerful as illustrations.

First, there is the tendency to over-emphasize the positive and discount the negative. The negative data is explained away. To point it out is to be disloyal to the organization. Closely related to over-emphasize the positive is when leaders give “best spin interpretations” to ambiguous information. There is often considerable pressure for everyone to “buy in” to the spin about what is unclear and murky. Concerned critics are ostracized. Those with alternative explanations are shunned (or at least their explanation is shunned). They simply stop being honest about their concerns. The issue of naive positive thinking is ingrained into pop leadership (more on this one tomorrow).

head in the cloudsSome Christian groups have a terrible distortion toward the positive. It is a sin to be negative. It is a failure of faith to point out the problems and difficulties. There is a God will take care of us and God will cause all things to work out for our good mentality that makes it all but impossible to have honest conversations about what is wrong. I have seen a large area charge just implode with bad leadership. The whole time, the leadership team was providing ridiculous theological and spiritual spin about what God was doing. I think they must now hold to a "remnant theology" for that is about all that is left of their original large ministry!

Second, leaders set new BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals) and move into the future with unreliable assumptions and risky deals. Notice how the principles that helped a company sustain greatness are now being corrupted. BHAGs are necessary, but they need to be grounded in the CORE of the organization. They also need to be stretch goals and not naive goals. When an organization is struggling you don't "bet big" on anything that is not grounded in solid fact. I had a conversation with a leader whose business was struggling. He began to describe to me his dream plan and what he was going to work on to turn things around. When I suggested his plan was unrealistic and that he needed to attend to some much more basic problems in his company, the conversation ended.

I had a conversation with a Christian leader who basically said, "God has given me a dream of doing great things. He wants me to move out in faith on this vision." His ministry was struggling. He was incompetent in many things. He had several character flaws that were undermining much of what he was currently doing (which was not going very well). Focusing on those BHAGs was an escape from responsibility. Add faith and a vision from God - and it gets very messy.

By the way, I told him (no suggestion this time) that God had not given him that vision and in fact, that God was not even going to use him if he did not address his incompetency and his character flaws. While I have lost touch with this person, I think he is no longer in the ministry.

Third, the assumption of past success biases those in charge. Past success does NOT guarantee future success. Success does go to the head of some leaders who now think they are the smartest people in the room. Things will work out because they are in charge. The past success encourages us that we will continue to succeed. By the way, fortune and luck are not reliable strategies for future growth.

If there is an area where churches struggle, it is with what worked in the past. Sometimes it is to honor the past. Other times the past is legitimized as the "way the Bible teaches." Other times it is the "head in the sand" mentality that won't look around and see that was use to work no longer does. A few weeks ago, coming back from vacation, we passed a sign (cheaply made and kind of rag-tag) posted at a driveway that led to an old, run down fundamentalist church. The sign said, "Old Fashioned Tent Revival" and gave the date of the event. Nuff said!

Fourth - failing to ask the right questions about the big decisions. There are three questions that must be answered with clarity (pp. 74). (1) What’s the upside if events turn out well?  (2) What’s the downside if events go very badly?  (3) Can you live with the downside? These questions must always be on the table. When an organization is in decline, it is crucial to ask them, especially numbers 2 & 3.

You can understand how these very things simply push the decline along. They work against the honest and painful assessment, problem solving and creative leadership needed to change serious problems. A massive amount of energy and wisdom is needed to turn the decline around.

Brian K. Rice
Leadership ConneXtions International