The trouble with leaders that allow too much complacency

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The trouble with leaders that allow too much…

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so, said Sir Alex Ferguson

By far one of the greatest mistakes leaders make when trying to change teams/departments/organisations is to drive ahead without establishing a sense of urgency in fellow senior managers. This error is fatal, as attempting to establish change always fails to achieve its objectives when complacency levels are high.


I was working within an organisation that was process driven and paralysed by even the slightest element of risk when they appointed a new CEO with all the razzamatazz and expectations of how this person will create effective change to impact commercial performance. Once he’d settled into his role he saw lurking on the horizon many problems and opportunities, most of which were the product of an industry that were resistant to progressing into the future. Therefore, they had organically grown a collective mindset within their people that acknowledged how ineffective they had become but ironically celebrated it as “it’s just the way it is here”, to a person who had come from the competitive world of elite sport; I found this distasteful at best.

As a seasoned executive he realised that few others within the organisation saw the dangers and possibilities as clearly as he did, but he felt that this was not an insurmountable problem. They could be persuaded, developed, or moved on.


A few years after his appointment he watched opportunity after opportunity sink in the sea of complacency. His first phase required sufficient corporate support to buy into a vision that could have propelled the organisation globally in a market they had no credible footprint. This did not work with his complacent staff. Eventually he gave up on his staff and partnered with a firm who were already successfully implementing many of his ideas. Then in a toothless battle played out with his senior leaders, he watched with amazement as people within his organisation with little sense of urgency, ignored all the powerful lessons in the partner’s recent history and stifled the partner’s ability to continue to do what it had been doing so well.

Leaders often fail to create sufficient urgency at the beginning of a change process for many different but interrelated reasons. They overestimate how much they can force changes in organisations and they underestimate how difficult it is to force people out of their comfort zones. They become paralysed with the downside possibilities associated with reducing complacency.


The issue was due to too much perceived past success, lack of visible crises, low-performance standards, and little and insufficient feedback both internally and externally. All this added up to “Yes, we’re not that great but we’re not terrible” or “it’s not my job to go the extra mile”.  Without that sense of urgency, people won’t give that extra, feel the passion or create healthy tension, which is required to perform to a level of the team or organisations’ talent. Instead they cling to the status quo and resist initiatives from above. As a result, new strategies fail, and quality programmes become more surface bureaucratic talk than quality business substance.


We specialise in human performance and organisational development. Our role is to be the trusted high-performance partner who helps clients achieve real change and sustained competitive advantage.


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