I use this useful metaphor of “nitrogen narcosis” from my 23-years as a Special Operations Naval Officer leading Diving and Explosive Ordnance Disposal teams to describe the adverse behavioral effects and disruptive organizational impact of Leadership Narcosis™. For those of you who are scuba divers, you know that nitrogen narcosis is a reversible alteration in consciousness producing a state similar to alcohol intoxication in divers at depth. It occurs to some small extent at any depth, but in most cases doesn’t become noticeable until deeper diving depths, usually starting around 30 to 40 meters.
Due to its perception-altering effects, the onset of nitrogen narcosis may be hard to recognize, its severity is unpredictable, and in scuba diving, the resulting illogical behavior can be fatal. However, the cure for nitrogen narcosis is a simple one, as effects disappear within minutes upon ascending to shallower depths. In diving, dangerous characteristics of nitrogen narcosis include the loss of decision-making ability, loss of focus, or impaired judgment. In the more extreme cases, some divers demonstrate a sense of invulnerability, extreme anxiety, exhilaration, giddiness, depression or even paranoia.
Regardless of the term used to describe the current and future business environment (e.g., VUCA, turbulence, unrelenting change, uncertainty, organizational compression, etc.) the fact is that the world around us is accelerating at an alarming pace creating potential hazards as pointed out with Nitrogen Narcosis. Without a focused effort on the identification of leadership strengths and weaknesses followed by targeted and often preemptive developmental activities, some leaders display signs and symptoms similar to nitrogen narcosis that I refer to as Leadership Narcosis™. You may know or work with leaders who exhibit Leadership Narcosis™ characteristics like loss of focus, poor decision-making skills, sense of invulnerability, etc. Our observations from research combined with our consulting experience reflect an increasingly alarming trend of senior leaders exhibiting characteristics of Leadership Narcosis™. A study by Kaplan and Minton (2006) reported that only 35% of CEOs in place in 1992 remained as CEO in 1997, while only 24% of CEOs in place in 1998 remained CEO in 2003.
The following is a more detailed list of warning signs, grouped into 5 categories, for the development of Leadership Narcosis™:
I am often surprised by our clients, suppliers or employees.
We do not have a clearly defined process for monitoring trends and patterns in the marketplace/business environment that will impact my business.
I find it difficult to adapt our strategy to changing events or circumstances.
Technology is not effectively leveraged to enable us to prepare for or preempt signs of change.
Although we may collect trend data, we do not have the right people in place or decision rules to help us anticipate change.
Our employees do not know how their daily work contributes to our vision/strategy.
We have not had many “wins” lately.
As a management team, we do not walk the talk of our strategy/vision/values.
Our bench strength of management talent is very weak.
Our employees are not engaged/empowered.
We do not act with a sense of urgency to marketplace or other business conditions.
Decisions are not reached at the lowest level, thereby slowing us down.
We do not have clearly defined decision rules (e.g. consensus, boss decides, etc.).
We act as if we are risk averse.
We need all of the information before making decisions.
We do not use “out-of-the-box” thinking.
We do not have a culture that encourages innovation/creativity.
We do not use benchmarking to help provide new ideas and ways of doing things.
We do not use cross-functional/collaborative teams to encourage alternative views.
We do not regularly seek better solutions.
Measurable work expectations are not established or clearly communicated to all employees.
We are unclear about internal and external deliverables.
We are not open to feedback from our clients, partners and employees.
Key performance measures are not tracked, evaluated and adjusted/adapted as conditions change.
Technology (e.g., dashboards) is not used to enable real-time feedback on key area.
Leadership assessment, development and coaching can help organizations identify the risk and possible courses of action. In an effort to help identify and prevent the occurrence of Leadership Narcosis™, many organizations are focusing on the development of agility as a critical competency of leadership (read blog — Leadership Narcosis Solutions).