Signs and Symptoms of Leadership Drift

Are you experiencing leadership drift?

I wrote about this in my last post.  As the word implies, “drift” is a loss of direction or purposefulness. I often encounter this in my work as a coach.  Of course, any pattern of behavior that reduces leaders’ impact or influence is cause for concern.

Leaders who have forgotten their core mission have drifted, explains Cornell University organizational-behavior professor Samuel Bacharach, PhD, in “How to Avoid Leadership Drift” (, April 2016).  Drifting manifests in a variety of ways, signaling that leaders have distanced themselves from their roles.

Drift can be linked to a loss of interest or control.  Expressing apathy toward current issues or projects is a discernible sign, as is coasting on past accomplishments. Drifting leaders often concede their principles or work ethic, permitting situations they never would have tolerated earlier in their careers.  Adopting a hands-off management style commonly indicates that a once-diligent leader has drifted.

Leaders who isolate themselves from colleagues or resist feedback may have succumbed to drift.  Some of the red flags I look for in a leader are shutting down, saying or contributing little, and making fewer decisions.

Just as a boat slowly drifts from shore, leadership drift slowly progresses and may be observed only after a significant occurrence. When employees begin to notice behavioral changes and wonder what happened to their once-respected leader, whispers become conversations. It becomes clear that leadership drift has been going on for some time. Drifting leaders eventually cause their organizations to veer off course, with potentially devastating implications.

Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning,

then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road,

progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road.
– C.S.Lewis

Circumstances are not always under a leader’s control. But drifting, distancing yourself from your role and duties, is. It is a result of choices, made either consciously or not, intentionally or not, calmly or desperately. You may think that drifting was something done to you. But it is something you did to yourself.

Do you see any signs or symptoms of leadership drift? If you would like to have a conversation about this, I’d love to hear from you. You can reach me here and on LinkedIn.