Have Your Leaders Become Single Points of Failure?

BIG IDEA:

No one wins when leaders act as bottlenecks.

Not too long ago, I worked with a supplier that my team has used for years. Dave runs the company and it’s a successful business. 

I had a job for Dave and his team. Nothing too complex, but it had a tight timeline so that I could meet a client expectation. 

Unfortunately, Dave was away on vacation. I worked with his number two and three leaders. It was painful. 

They couldn’t get the job done. We went back and forth, back and forth. When Dave came back, I vented my frustration. The amazing thing was that within five minutes on the phone with Dave, he got what my client needed and turned the job around in a couple hours. 

How is this possible? 

In Dave’s case, he’s the owner of the company. It’s a small enterprise. He knows the most, does the most and has his hands in everything. While Dave’s team members are nice people, on their own, they really struggle. 

But I see this dynamic playing out all the time in organizations – and not just at the top of the house. It manifests at all levels of leadership. 

The reality is that Dave will never be able to grow his business until he grows the leaders beneath him. And leaders at all levels will struggle meeting their goals and objectives without doing the same.  

Simply put, Dave inadvertently was a bottleneck and a single point of failure in his own company, just like many leaders are of their areas. 

The classic definition of a single point of failure is when a large, complex system is brought to its knees by the failure of one smaller part within.  

Leaders become a single point of failure when they do too much themselves and haven’t taken the accountability to build the capacity of their teams. In my experience, most leaders don’t do this on purpose. The last two years have imposed a time of chronic overwhelm, burnout, and difficulty retaining talent, which has resulted in many leaders taking on more. Now, as we emerge to a new reality in our organizations, it’s a great time for leaders to reassess how they are leading and take immediate steps to minimize being single points of failure.  

WHY IT MATTERS: 

In light of the Great Resignation, it’s tempting for leaders to take even more work on themselves – which only perpetuates the problem.   

With the Great Resignation churning through teams and leading to heavy turnover, I’m hearing leaders complain about how challenging it is to ensure that their people have deep organizational knowledge and a firm grasp on the organization’s context. Or, that they are too busy hopping between zoom calls to lead.  

While I understand that this challenge is very real, I counter that this scenario makes it even more critical for them to find time to fulfill one of the primary obligations of leadership – to build and develop those they lead. It’s imperative for leaders to find systems that smoothly integrate team members into the organization, gain clarity on the strategy and their priorities, and proactively build the team around them.  

On the contrary, leaders will take on more and more responsibilities instead of investing the upfront time to transfer critical information so their team can get its work done. 

THE RISK: 

The tendency to become a single point of failure can happen at any and all levels of leadership.

Why does this problem happen so frequently in organizations of all sizes? I believe there are several reasons: 

  • Strong technical performers. Many organizations have a long history of promoting exceptional technical talent into leadership roles. These people are good at the task at hand, but bad at leading others. Ultimately, they become the single point of failure because they cannot bring their teams up to the same level of performance. 
  • Strong leaders. Similar to the first example, but in this case it’s because someone’s leadership skills outshine everyone else’s, resulting in many people going to that person for solutions. Sometimes, there are even situations of reverse delegation – team members delegate work upwards because they just can’t do it. A leader’s willingness to take on their team’s work leaves the organization weaker. 
  • Micro-management. Managers who keep their fingers in every pie and don’t let their team grow and develop. When work is manageable, they can get away with this. But when there’s simply too much to do, things begin to break down. 
  • “Hero” mentality. Managers who need all the glory will take everything on. What’s worse, they won’t inspire their team to step up, so they continue to underperform. Obviously, that hurts the organization. 
  • Lack of resources. I see a lot of this today. Companies try to run too lean. Leaders have to lead, but also have to do a ton of work themselves. Organizations need to wake up to the burning out of good people or turning them into drones who simply check out because they are overworked and undervalued. 

WHAT TO PAY ATTENTION TO:

Leaders may need to reorient their conception of what it means to be a strong leader—for the good of their team and the organization as a whole. 

At this point, you might be thinking: what’s the way forward? Here are a few strategies you can use with your team: 

  • Review the bullets above and do an honest analysis of what is contributing to your heavy workload and creating this situation. 
  • Determine the price you, your team and company are paying by you being a single point of failure. 
  • Remove all meetings where you are not needed, or where you can have a team member attend, or better yet, where no one attends at all. When we challenge leaders with this step in our development programs, they immediately identify 25 – 30% of their meetings as not requiring their attendance.  Imagine if you freed up that amount of time in your calendar! 
  • Assess your team to determine who has the potential to take on some of the things you are holding on to. Make building the capabilities of your team a critical priority for you. 
  • Commit to an ongoing practice of implementing the above four steps on a regular basis. 
  • *For CEOs and HR Leaders: Reflect on the bullets above while also taking a look across your organization. If you see this happening in multiple places, examine how your culture is perpetuating this tendency. If it’s just in a few, talk to the leaders and set a corrective action plan. 

If this is happening to you, you need to find a way to reorient your role so that you are building the capacity in your team, which in turn frees you up to do the work only leaders can do. In other words, you can work on improving the system, rather than just being a part of the system.  

If you can achieve this state of leadership accountability in today’s challenging context, you’ll not only create value for your organization, but you’ll also build a stronger group of leaders who in turn can do the same with the people they lead.  

Don’t be like Dave, where things don’t get done unless you do them yourself. 

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We have worked with many founders / CEOs that have grown their organizations to a point where they couldn’t continue doing “business as usual” without becoming a single point of failure. If these stories resonate, my latest book, Accountable Leaders, lays out how to build and scale leadership accountability across your organization. 


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