It All Starts at the Top

For more than 20 years now, I’ve heard John Maxwell emphasize that “EVERYTHING rises and falls on leadership.” I even remember when Uncle Ben gave similar counsel to Peter Parker, a.k.a. Spiderman, saying that “with great power comes great responsibility!” If we really want to have an impact on those things that are killing our profitability, especially in the highest risk areas, and achieve real quantifiable results, I can’t think of a better way to start than with a top down approach!

I found an article on called Ineffective Leadership and the Devastating Individual and Organizational Consequences that opened with this:

Have you ever been so stressed at the thought of continuing to work with an ineffective leader — a "bad boss" — that you become physically ill? If so, you are not alone. Let's examine the consequences and potential solutions.

After detailing how much poor leadership can make an employee’s life suck, and providing quite a bit of statistical data to back their claims, the author went on to state that “In addition to the individual outcomes, it also leads to organizational issues of lost productivity, employee absenteeism, safety issues, turnover and increased healthcare costs.” Let’s be honest here, someone running a company doesn’t even have to care about the people who work for them to see just how much profit they’re losing once they’ve sifted through enough articles like that… And I’m sure we could both make a long list of names of the folks we’ve interacted with throughout our careers who wouldn’t give the slightest bit of attention to John or Uncle Ben but would most certainly break down walls for a couple of extra nickels.

In complete transparency, there’s a ton of things that can be done at every level of an organization that can have a significant impact on any given profitability killer, and we’ll be working through several of them individually soon, but we’ll never see the full benefit of any if we’re not willing to start at the top! I’ll share Maxwell’s wisdom once more just in case you missed it before, “EVERYTHING rises and falls on leadership!”

And while the owner of a company or the folks in the C-suite won’t necessarily touch every single area of the business that needs this kind of attention on any given day, they do indeed set the tone for everyone throughout the organization reporting to them. What they place a priority on becomes the focus of their direct reports and that continues on down the line. So if we really want a great return from accepting the great responsibility that comes with that great power, it will be critical for us to provide a top down leadership model so let’s look at some examples…

Exponential Impact

The author of the Forbes article I referenced before continued supporting the idea that It All Starts at the Top by citing a Gallup’s “State of the American Manager” report in sharing that “one in two employees has quit their job because of a bad boss at some point in their career. Seventy percent are thinking about and/or actively looking for a new job due to a lack of support and recognition.” John Maxwell made a similar point in Leadership Gold by saying that “Some sources estimate that as many as 65% of people leaving companies do so because of their managers… The ‘company’ doesn’t do anything negative to them. People do. Sometimes coworkers cause the problems that prompt people to leave. But often the people who alienate employees are their direct supervisors.”

While each of those statements point to retention, something we’ll unpack in quite a bit of detail soon, both should serve as an eye-openers to the overall effects of poor leadership throughout an organization! An article I found called 6 Ways Poor Leadership Impacts Your Business makes this statement early on, “poor leadership is a huge liability. The actions of a poor leader lead not only to missed targets, but can destroy the entire culture of a company.” The author goes on to share the following FIVE ways (yes, you read that right… FIVE) you can see poor leadership impacting your business:

  1. Loss of motivation to work
  2. Poor sales performance
  3. Lack of ownership and transparency
  4. Mismanaged resources
  5. Poor work culture

For what it’s worth, I went through that article multiple times trying to find their sixth way but the only reference I saw was in the title. Here nor there, I suppose…

What I did pull from going through these points several times was that each of them have a real financial impact on an organization. Unfortunately, each can be difficult to quantify and even when they are, the proverbial finger is nearly always pointed to some cause other than leadership. As I’ve said before, it’s so much easier to place blame on a thing than it is to do that pesky thing called accepting personal responsibility!

For now, the case I want to make with you isn’t tied to any one of those things, or even any of the ones we break down into detail later on, but more about how poor leadership at the top of the organization in any one of those areas can set the tone for what occurs at every other level. The trickle-down effect can make a small issue at the executive level exponentially more costly by the time it impacts a frontline employee. If nothing else, the numbers are so much greater - but even the smallest issues tend to grow as they’re passed on from one level to the next within the company.

What I want you to consider right now is how much direct and ongoing attention did any of those five things listed above need under the best leader you’ve ever worked with? Now how about with the worst? I doubt your answers are very different from mine… 

A simplified translation of Luke 16:10 says “Whoever can be trusted with small things can also be trusted with big things.” When it comes to top down leadership and how those high risk areas can kill our profitability, we’re rarely dealing with small things at that point. That said, I believe the things we - as executive leaders in our organizations - will need to do to address any of those issues are much simpler than we often believe they are!

Leading is Hard, But Not Complicated!

You will never hear me say that leadership is easy, especially the kind of leadership that’s necessary to effectively run a large organization. What you will hear me say from time to time is that it’s actually damn hard! In fact, I’ve often heard John Maxwell joke about the book he has scheduled to be released immediately after he dies called Leadership Sucks. Don’t misunderstand me, or the title of John’s future book, in thinking that either of us are suggesting that leadership is complicated or difficult; neither are true! I say leadership is hard not because of the painstakingly complex work that’s involved but because ensuring we’re being the best example we can be for the people who count on us to lead can be a heavy burden. When we truly care for those people, and I don’t believe we should ever accept a role leading others if we don’t care for them, the level of responsibility is high!

If we really want to make an exponential impact as we work to address the things that are killing our profitability, we need to recognize that every action we take to exemplify genuine servant leadership to our teams will carry from the top down! When we invest time into how we communicate with our teams, individually or as a group, the leaders reporting to us have a clear example to follow. When we’re intentional about being responsive with those who need our time and attention - regardless of how tough it may be to provide that for them at any given time - it serves as a demonstration for how they can do the same with those they’re responsible for leading. And when we show our team members that we’ve always got their best interests at heart, not only are they likely to be incredibly engaged but they’ll rarely consider a position anywhere else!

While none of those things require fancy credentials or following complex procedures, they’re most certainly things we’ll need to weave into what’s likely an extremely heavy workload. That’s where it can get pretty tricky! On any given day, we will face pressure to choose the task that urgently needs our attention over the individual who’s asking for our ear. As high level managers, executives, or business owners, there will never be a shortage of issues demanding us to be hands-on. But if we don’t balance those tasks with a healthy dose of time for the people around us, we can expect to see that trickle down to every other level of our organizations.

If each new level of leadership responsibility is all about the money that comes with it, there will never be enough of it to be worth what it will take to earn authentic influence and buy-in from the teams around us. That said, when we focus on the impact we can have on each individual instead of the perks that may come our way, we can build a culture that thrives and provides rewards that can’t be had any other way. Will it be hard? Absolutely! But if we’re being honest, having a crap culture where mediocrity is the best anyone shoots for and no great people want to be a part of is stinking hard too! At least when we’re willing to engage in the hard, but extremely simple, steps required to lead well, the results payoff over time! Unfortunately, this requires many in the highest levels of their organizations to change how they view a few things so we’ll pick up there soon…