Leadership Drift – How to Recognize It And What to Do About It


Are you on track with where you want to go? You might have heard about team drift, but what about you as a leader? Is it possible you’ve drifted without realizing it?

Why Leadership Drift Occurs

A huge external shift

Sometimes we are thrown off track because of a sudden change in our world such as an earthquake, hurricane or an illness.

Anthony had just started his own business when his wife was diagnosed with cancer.  Realizing he needed to be able to devote more attention to take care of his wife and children during this period, he put his new business on hold and returned to his previous corporate job.  Years later, long after his wife had regained full health, he was still with the same company.

Sedated slowly

The longer Barbara worked for her company, the more aware she became of practices that made her uncomfortable.  First she discovered they collected information on customers without their knowledge, but she rationalized it.  Then she discovered a few more things about the way the treated customers, and again rationalized it. She also noticed that in some ways employees were treated in ways she considered disrespectful. But she decided this was just a job and looked for personal fulfillment outside work. Her awareness of company practices and her acceptance of them occurred so gradually, she did not notice how much they had influenced her attitude about relationships and life in general.

Seduced by momentum

Sometimes we start out with clarity and then stop paying attention. We stop being intentional about our choices and allow momentum to take over.

John was a techie in high school and in college majored in engineering. He loved his first job in the IT department of a large company, where he developed a reputation as a “go to” person because he could solve almost any problem. After many years of moving up the corporate ladder, he confided to me, “You’d think that now, after all these promotions and recognition, as a senior leader, I’d feel pretty satisfied.  The truth is, I was having a lot more fun before I became a manager.”

Going with the flow

Sometimes we find we’re off course because we never had a clear course in the first place.  We just wake up one day feeling like things aren’t right and have no idea why.

5 questions to help you refocus and stop leadership drifting.

The first step is to take stock. It takes courage to examine where you are in relation to your dreams because it means you will need to do something about it. 

However, before you decide to take action, it’s important to reclaim your purpose. If you’re not clear about what you really want, you are likely to set goals that will not be truly satisfying once accomplished.

These questions can help you reconnect with what’s most important to you. Ask yourself:

  1. “What do I want to do?” — not “What should I do?”
  2. “What do I truly desire?” — not “”What do I want to move away from?”
  3.  “What do I care deeply about? What am I willing to stand in front a bus to defend?
  4. “What do I want to be known for? How do I want to feel about myself? What do I want from my relationships?”
  5. Why do I want that?” — Dig down below your initial answers to discover what is fundamentally important to you.

Setting goals and taking action to get back on track is important. But first get clear about what matters most and where you want to go….  or the tail will be wagging the dog.


27 comments to Leadership Drift – How to Recognize It And What You Can Do About It

  • It’s so easy to become unconscious and turn the handle with no clear purpose. I guess it is the fear of change needing effort to be made to get back to your right path that discourages action. Thanks for the reminder Jesse and your examples cover the multiple points of how you can get derailed, even with a good intention, but not course correct once the short term objective has been met. Makes me think of an image I have seen via Social Media of two circles, which don’t even come close to touching, never mind overlapping. The one circle is labelled “Your comfort zone” and the other is labelled “Where magic happens”.

  • Hi Jesse,
    One of your best posts! Leadership drift happens all the time and without awareness.

    It could be, as you mentioned, personal leadership goals. Or the broader culture shift that happens when leaders stop leading and begin just to manage for end results.

    Great post and I will share with my network.

    Best …

    • That’s an excellent example of Leadership Drift – managing solely for results without connection to purpose. And unfortunately happens all too often. Thanks for your kind words, Kate, and for sharing your wisdom.

  • Great Post Jesse.
    Well done

  • David Hollingshead (@drhollingshead)

    Great post! It is sometimes difficult to realize you have begun to drift off coarse. Once we achieve our objective, we must pause and set a new goal to work towards. Thanks for your insight, love the way you turn concepts so I must analyze within.

    • You’ve raise an important point, David – the necessity to pause before setting a new objective. Without taking time to reflect and recalibrate, we are in danger of moving into automatic pilot and giving up control of our lives. I am delighted to hear my post pushed your thinking, and I appreciate your sharing your insights.

  • Julie winkle Giulioni

    I love the expression ‘sedated slowly.’ How true. It reminds me of the (inhumane) story of frogs in a pot of water brought slowly to a boil. They (and we) just don’t notice until its too late. Stan Salp refers to this as ‘paper cuts to the soul.’ But, because it happens so slowly, how can we guard against it?

    • You made me laugh, Julie. I had actually originally titled that section “Boiled Frogs.” Not surprised that we are thinking alike :-)
      Great question: How can we guard against it?
      Here are my thoughts a) be aware that it is a possibility b) be clear about your purpose, your priorities, your values, and vision. c) Take David’s advice (see above) to pause and frequently on where you are now in relation to where you want to go d) expect to make mid-course corrections. In other words, take action, move forward, but keep a big picture perspective. My post 1001 Mid-Course Corrections says a bit more on this subject.

      Would love to know to hear from you or others who might have additional thoughts.

    • And there it is! The infamous frog story!

      When I first read Jesse’s post, it was when she still had that section up on the frogs. When I went back later, it was gone! Thought I was losing my mind. Messaged Jesse and she reassured me that I wasn’t going off the deep end! haha

      Anyway, another great post Jesse.

      I have had 1st hand experience with the top 3. The huge external shift when my husband passed away. For the second one, sedated slowly, I’ve had two separate experiences with this as an adult. The first was entering into a healthcare environment (longterm care setting) where the existing staff who had been there for years were the frogs who were slowly boiling to death over a vast number of years. To the point it was impacting sound judgment. This was a DIFFICULT position to be in as the new ‘kid’ on the block and witnessing it since I had just returned to nursing after a period where I stayed home with my first daughter for a spell; homeschooling etc. So I did NOT want to really be placed in a position where I had to be any sort of change agent. I was literally forced into the role when all’s I wanted to do was remain under the radar, fit in, and BELONG. I needed the job!

      Long story short, it all came to a head when I was passing meds one day. One of our residents was smoking an illegal substance in this state AND sharing it with another resident who happened to be schizophrenic. And who also is considered to be a vulnerable adult.

      When I brought it to the attention of our immediate management and director of nursing, I was basically told…’We choose to turn the other way and ignore it.’ Well, that type of management thinking was what had the other staff members slowly boiling to death to the point they felt paralyzed for fear of losing their jobs if they tackled some of these things head on. Judgment was compromised. Big time.

      No matter how badly I wished it wasn’t a reality and wanted the issues to go away, I knew I needed to do something about. So I wrote a letter to immediate management backed with enough respect as I could muster along with every medical legal safety and health issue I could find to stress the importance that as an organization, it is CRITICAL that we abide by the laws of the state, and that our duty is to the safety, health, and well-being of EVERY resident in our facility. Not only were they allowing a long time (paying) resident to do something illegal on the premises but also sharing it with other residents. VULNERABLE adults.

      As a licensed healthcare professional, I put my own license at risk and the safety of every patient I take care of when I don’t obey the laws, abide by our healthcare policies and procedures, and operate within my scope of practice. etc.

      After that letter, they changed their tune and took care of the issue. After a few more different but highly questionable issues, I eventually left. (won’t get into details but suffice to say the place no longer exists)

      In the other situation, I was the one who wound up being the frog in boiling water, but fortunately it wasn’t in a healthcare setting!

      Thanks again for another great post. I especially love your questions at the end. The contrasts are very helpful.


      • PS: I left out the most important part and more immediate result of this whole experience! And will also help add an important clarification at the end here that could be misinterpreted.

        This experience taught me first hand the power of a single courageous act. (even if you are scared to act…as I was) My action inadvertently revived and empowered the other nurses and staff. There was an immediate shift in attitude. They were no longer powerless employees who were ‘stuck’ doing what they were told by upper management if it was in direct conflict with patient care legally and ethically.

        They remembered that they were the front line of defense because they were the ones delivering DIRECT patient care. And having a license to deliver that care helps protect them to do what is right by the patient.

        Even the caregivers felt more empowered and became better patient advocates. More thorough and swifter reports to their nurses on shift if they observed anything questionable, safety issues, etc.

        I didn’t find out until a few years after I left that the place was eventually shut down. Found out from one of the other nurses I used to work with.

        So the important lesson is you just never know the impact one action can have in reviving and empowering a team or organization until you do it. In this particular case, it took on a life of it’s own. And I wasn’t expecting that. And it made the risk I took worth it.

        • Thanks so much Samantha for sharing the ways you experienced “leadership drift.” Your personal stories really bring them to light. And you make a wonderful point that we don’t always know the full extent of our influence on others when we do the right thing.

          ps. I’ve often continue to tweak my posts after I’ve published them, a habit I will now reconsider :-)

          • Oh no! lol No worries, Jesse! Tweak away! I do the same thing with my own posts. In fact, the very 1st post I did for tweetconnection, I probably re-edited it 30 times after I published it! haha Unfortunately, I still haven’t figured out how to narrow that one down into something shorter and more pithy. It’s more like a novella! (grins)

            However, in this case, it just happened to be your initial additions with the frog analogy that prompted me to want to share the ‘sedated slowly’ incident. I just couldn’t comment right on the spot as I had company on the way over. :)

            Actually, I just went back thru my emails and found the ORIGINAL unedited post with your story:

            (If you put a frog in a pot of hot water, it will jump out. But if you put it in a pot of cold water and then turn on the heat, the water warms up so gradually that the frog just goes to sleep not noticing that the water is getting hotter and hotter.)

            I LOVE this analogy because it so accurately describes what can happen to ANY of us in a variety of situations. Not only in a work environment but in our relationships too. The long and short of it is that we may start out not realizing anything is amiss or wrong. One small thing happens and we rationalize it or justify it. Something else happens again. Then another. Then another. In the same setting or with the same person. Before we know it, we find ourselves in a situation where we are tolerating things that we more then likely never would have if it was EVIDENT from the beginning. But because it can happen over a long period of time, boundaries, common sense, good judgment, self-esteem, etc…may get lost for awhile until or unless there is some sort of awakening. Either from within or coming from the outside.

            Thanks again Jesse.

            And go ahead, tweak away! :)

  • Amy


    Great blog and as you’ll see from this comment – it’s hit a cord with me. I found myself drifting in a sales management career years ago in the management consulting industry. My heart was no longer drawn to the kind of role that my career had me now typecast .. meanwhile in all my client projects I was capturing and studying leadership behaviors, reading Emotional Intelligence books, thinking about how to get the teams more engaged with each other not just the work… in time I realized my side interest WAS my interest and perhaps a signal that this is a new path. But what to do?

    Back to your blog, I found myself shorting up my “drifting momentum” by making a diliberate choice to step out of my sales mgmt career and start my own engagement/leadership practice. And in 2008… the year the press was criticizing the President for using the work “crisis” too much.

    I appreciate the word you use, “drift.” Sometimes to get out of drifting you have to make a change and “fight the current” to swim the current to get to a new artery in your career or to get your feet truly grounded into what it is you will love talking about and doing – 40, 50, 60 or 80 hours a week. Here’s what helped me:

    After a few months of resistance – my detractors actually became my supporters, they recongized I was serious, this wasn’t a mid life crisis or whim.

    I got connected to people who were in the field and open to helping me understand what I needed. I used my passions to help them back and speaking of passions…

    I took a Passion Profile from the PurposedLinked Consulting organization and learned my Passion Archetype profile – I’m a Connector, Builder, Healer. I was able to use this tremendous insight to “have peace” that I could build my business using the strengths that come from my passions – which I did! In fact in one of the areas of my practice on leadership energy I am now a certified Passion facilitator.

    Again – amazing post, I am keeping this one and may refer to it for my clients.

    Here’s to everyone else out there getting ready to end the “drift” and start swimming upstream – you can do it!


    • Amy, thank you so much for sharing your personal experience of recognizing that you had drifted and what you did to get back in the stream. Real stories are what makes these concepts come alive and give others the courage to act on their own dreams. Yours is a wonderful example. Best to you! ~Jesse

  • Beth Wilkinson

    Great post! One of your best! Leadership drift happens so often within executive teams it’s scary. What do you think an organizational development team’s role is when working with executives that may be demonstrating these characteristics? More specifically, do you think leadership drift is something that someone else can help you identify or does it have to be purely from self-awareness?

    • Hi Beth, You’ve raised an important question: How can you help someone else recognize that they’ve drifted? I believe the OD or L&D team in an organization does have a responsibility to address leadership drift. Some ways we can do that is by sharing information and your own thoughts and to ask the right questions. When leadership drift is happening on a wide-scale, some questions that might be helpful are “Where are we going as an organization?” “What’s our vision?” or “If we continue doing things the way we’ve been doing them, how likely are we to get where we want to go?” You might find my HBR post on Team Drift helpful. When I see it happening for an individual leader, depending on my relationship, it can be helpful to offer feedback, if you keep it descriptive and not evaluative. Or to ask questions like, “how does this project support your vision for your role here (or where you want to take your team)?”

      These are just a few thoughts off the top of my head.
      I’d like to invite you and others to share your thoughts on how to bring the issue of leadership drift to light in an organization.

  • So true, leaders experience drift. We don’t mean to, but drift happen. For me, clarity is always the key that wakes me up and helps me realize just how far I’ve drifted. Your 5 questions are definitely clarifying questions!

    • Great observation, Kent: these questions will bring clarity. The challenge is to remember to ask them every once awhile before you drift too far because drift is a natural phenomenon that occurs when we don’t pay attention.

  • Leadership drift. I like it!

    Let me throw out “seeking approval of others” as a powerful current that can dash the best ships on the rocks, if their captains aren’t careful. 😉 You’d think leaders would prove immune to this one. You’d think…

    And can the casual observer tell whether boldness or restraint or anything in between is not a way of seeking approval?

    Your five questions can assist in course correction for this one too. The “What do I care deeply about?” is especially powerful in some cases because it calls forth our values, and the chance to use our character strengths to set our course right again. The “Why do I want this?” appears as if it would yield the obvious, but when we keep asking it over and over again, BOY can it lead to new insights.

    These days I am also a fan of asking, “What feels appropriate here?” This is a different question from “What should I do?”

    What FEELS appropriate is not always completely logical. It does not always conform to the consensus view. It’s a feeling of tumblers falling into place, a good fit, alignment with a course that will serve the best over time. It requires trust in one’s ability to sense the fit of what’s needed. While “What should I do?” seems to call on our logic, and “What do I want?” pulls in our desire, “What is appropriate here?” seems to call on some deeper sense of truth in the moment, and elevates our desire up a level, to see the further implications of our choices, and clue us in to other options we may also want, or want instead.

    Love this stuff. 😉


    • I agree, Mark. Another cause of “drift” is when we become too concerned with approval from others – we begin to follow their path instead of our own. I also like your question “What feels appropriate here?” Your insights are much appreciated.

  • I especially like #5. It is what I call root value analysis. Derived from the “5 Why” technique of Lean Management, I suggest to make a chain of “Why?” questions. You ask yourself why you want to achieve a goal. Like “Why do I want to get promoted?”, you might answer yourself “Because I get more responsibility.” Then ask again “Why do I want more responsibility?” Continue with “Why?” on the answer at least 5 times.

    Eventually, you will end up with your true motives, the deeper value behind your wishes.

    You might end with “I want to be respected by others”. Now I contrast this with Jesse’s last reply ‘Another cause of “drift” is when we become too concerned with approval from others – we begin to follow their path instead of our own.’ Confusing “respect” with “approval” can cause a lot of trouble.

  • Brilliant post!

    This is an important topic and your questions are so on point they bring clarity and deep awareness to ourselves.

    Leadership Drift is one more layer that we must explore if we are to bring ourselves closer to the leaders we are meant to be.

    Thanks Jesse.

  • Jacky

    Jesse what an amazing post, thank you!
    What would you recommend when you witness a dear friend drifting not only in leadership but in the essence of life and who is consistently refusing to have a open heart based dialogue? Going into withdrawl from the real world?
    We can learn how to turn our own drifting into a magical learning and growth process. How can we best support a loved one drifting who is not willing to open up to anyone? Curious to hear your thoughts. With kindness, Jacky

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