Denial, It’s Not Just a River in Egypt February 2 2011

Hosni photo It looks like the end game for Hosni Mubarak may be nigh.  At the end of the day when a million countrymen flooded the streets of Cairo to call for his immediate resignation, the Egyptian president went on television to say he intended to stay on the job for eight more months to ensure an orderly transition.  As I write this,  that transition includes riots in the streets between the masses demanding Mubarak’s resignation and what looks like a few thousand people who support him. The country’s army is doing its best to allow freedom of expression while maintaining order in a non-violent way.  The police, thought to be loyal to Mubarak, look poised to step in.

It’s a mess that stems from a leader who could not see or accept that the dynamic had suddenly turned dramatically against him.  After 30 years as the ruler of Egypt, Mubarak apparently couldn’t believe that the situation was beyond his control.  His long held story about himself seems to be so strong that he’s in denial about his changing fortunes.

He’s not the first leader to be in denial and he won’t be the last.  The history of government and business is littered with the stories of leaders who denied or could not see the world around them was rapidly changing.   They often held on too long and things ended badly for their organizations and their people. 

Of course, there are a lot of stories of leaders in denial that we never hear about it because they play out on smaller stages.   You have probably witnessed some.  You might have been involved in some.  Maybe you see it going on in your organization right now.  While I hope it’s not the case, you might even be the leader in denial.

In the interest of providing a reality check, here are five signs that you or a  leader you know might be in denial:

1.       You won’t hear bad news or you rationalize it away.  Bad news, of course, is anything that conflicts with your worldview.

2.       A small group of trusted (read that as sycophantic in this case) advisors invest a lot of energy in assuring you that all is well.

3.       You don’t get out much.  You prefer to stay close to your office.  Mixing in the broader organization makes you uncomfortable.  Besides, you have lots of work to do in your office.  You believe the people you need to interact with will come to you.

4.       You don’t notice or you discount the wrongheaded buzz out there about your organization because they (you probably talk a lot about “them” instead of “we”) don’t understand what the reality is on the inside.

5.       In spite of your best efforts, it’s becoming harder to get anything meaningful done in your organization.  The “troops” (literally in Mubarak’s case) just don’t seem to respond like they used to.  The thought that they’ve had enough and have chosen to disengage doesn’t occur to you.

So, those are some warning signs that I’ve seen leaders in denial miss.  What about you?  What are some other warning signs that a leader might be in denial?  Conversely, what should you or the leaders in your organization be paying attention to to make sure they’re dealing with reality rather than denying it?  Would really appreciate your thoughts on those questions.

2 Responses to “Denial, It’s Not Just a River in Egypt”

  1. This is a great post! My organization helps companies through changes meant to improve performance, so we spend a lot of time talking with executives about change.

    During the recession, most of the executives were frighteningly similar to Mubarak. They were so entrenched in preserving themselves in the face of so many unknowns that they rejected almost anything new. Yet the world was still clearly moving on. At some time, they will wake up and find that their fears and conservatism had destroyed their organizations.

    There is a great book on this called: "Why Smart Executives Fail" by Sydney Finkelstein. It is a study of highly successful executives that destroyed their companies. The reasons reported are the same as in the post.

  2. Scott Eblin says:

    Great recommendation on the Finkelstein book, William. Thanks!

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