The Leadership Rabbit Hole

Recently, I had the dubious honor to work with a senior executive who just doesn’t get it.

Rodney was V.P. of Marketing for a leading manufacturer of networking technology. (Or so we’ll say – substitute the leader, politician, or other important person of your choice.) As such, it is Rodney’s job to create demand for his company’s products. And yet after months of effort, demand had actually decreased, Rodney’s team became alienated, and the company’s performance suffered as a result of his work.

Rodney was always quick to point out that the economy was sluggish and therefore the problem wasn’t his marketing but simply that people weren’t going to respond to anything. Also, said Rodney, the Internet team was slow to respond to his needs, holding up his online marketing initiatives. Furthermore, he had made requests of his President for approval on programs but they were denied, so really the marketing woes were the President’s fault. Rodney’s list of reasons why performance was lacking, as you can tell, went on and on and included everything around him except the common denominator: Rodney.

Down the Leadership Rabbit Hole

The leadership rabbit hole is where would-be leaders go when they’ve “checked out” and stopped leading. Their reality is distorted and the hallmark is self-deception. More to the point, you can tell if your colleague, friend, or loved one is down the rabbit hole if they go to great lengths to make it clear that the cause of all the trouble in their life is somewhere “out there,” outside the rabbit hole, well outside of their control and certainly not their fault. None of the issues at hand are the fault of the individual, all solutions worth trying have been tried, and you clearly don’t understand the roadblocks – no, dare I say persecution – they face.

That is the leadership rabbit hole. That mentality kills entire businesses, friendships, and relationships every day.

If Not You, Then Who

The difference between true leaders at all ranks, good employees, and total losers is simple. True leaders at any rank of any company know that only they are responsible for the success required and therefore they must cause success. Good employees diligently deliver results, yet mistakenly believe that only a few need lead and that someone else is ultimately responsible. Total losers consistently think someone or something else is responsible, they think leadership is based in titles, and they fail to deliver results, the thing that counts.

I’m going to say it without reservation: Primary responsibility for our success as leaders rests with us and us alone, whether we are the owner, manager, or dedicated employee.

Not the economy. Not the whim and will of clients. Not whatever tax burden, law, or policy is being imposed by local or state legislatures. Not anything but what we personally accomplish toward success. These things and more may be factors, yes, but only factors and nothing more and to claim otherwise is an exercise in self-deception. The leadership rabbit hole.

Self-deception is a question of focus. Focus is shifted from a no-holds-barred dedication toward delivering on things that are truly factors critical to the end goals of the business (e.g. – revenue, profit, customer inquiries, sales, product quality ratings, etc.) to complaints about things that sound critical but really probably aren’t (e.g. – systems delays, taxes, paperwork, etc.). To be sure, it is critical to plan for and solve roadblocks. But when they become the focus and the consistent refrain in defense of lack of performance when a more appropriate response would be no defense at all but rather a concise, well-formed plan for delivering results, that is proof positive we’ve entered the leadership rabbit hole.

In my experience, we most often enter the leadership rabbit hole as self defense when we’re out of ideas and don’t know how to accomplish the necessary. “I’ve tried everything I can think of and nothing worked. It must be everyone else’s fault.” Here’s a fresh idea: ask for help.

If Not Now, Then When

It is extraordinarily popular right now to say that nothing can be done about business performance because of the economy. We have to wait. We’re helpless. Sigh.


To be sure, there are many businesses going under. But did you know there are also businesses doing great? In literally every sector and in every market, there is a #1 performer beating every one of their competitors.

And that is my point: somebody has to be successful. By giving into the self-deception and claiming that there’s nothing we can do, we’re not only hiding the reality that we don’t know what to do, but also we’re conceding the market to our competition. It makes perfect sense that some business in our sector will succeed and will be the best, even right now. But by adopting a defeatist attitude, we’re in effect saying, “I’m not smart enough to make my business be the best.”

I don’t know why anyone would ever take that attitude, give up, throw in the towel, and declare the competition bigger, taller, stronger and smarter. If somebody has to succeed and become the best performer in your sector, even right now, why not do what it takes to make that somebody be you?

Out of the Rabbit Hole

I noted above that often we enter the rabbit hole because we don’t know what else to do. Important keys to breaking out, then, include providing coaching toward professional skills development, visioning, and strategic and tactical planning. In this way, we give fresh tools, new ideas, and most importantly, new focus and direction away from blame and toward potential results.

Results must be delivered upon. So it is critical to provide accountability to facilitate achievement of the new vision and plan. A simple system of controls is critical to check for performance and provide corrective action.

Not surprisingly, a key factor is that this help and accountability must be accepted. If not, or if the desired improvements do not result – as was the case with Rodney – then it becomes critical for the individual to leave the organization whether by their choice or yours. This is especially sensitive if the individual in the rabbit hole is you and you’re the top leader: we’ve identified the problem, and the problem is you. Now what?

Bye Bye, Wonderland

The leadership rabbit hole is no fairy tale and quite often there is no happy ending. While it will probably be very tempting after reading this article to march up to someone and declare, “You’re completely down the leadership rabbit hole and don’t even know it,” that’s not helpful. Connecting with and following the advice of a trusted advisor who can cut through the situation to facilitate the needed coaching and accountability, however, can make the critical difference.

Dustin Walling is Principal of Dustin Walling Associates, a Seattle-based manage
ment consulting firm providing strategy and operational consulting. For article topics, questions, or comments, Dustin can be reached at

All material Copyright 2007-2008, Wallingford Specialties, Inc. and Dustin Walling Associates, unless otherwise noted. All Rights Reserved.

Dustin Walling




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