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Leadership & The Boiling Frog Syndrome

If you drop a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will instantly try to climb out. However…if you gently place it in a pot of lukewarm water and turn the heat on low, it will float there calmly. As the water gradually heats up, the frog is unaware of its deadly changing environment and before long it boils to death.

Many of us have been like that boiling frog – too afraid to jump out of a bad situation. So we simmer until we eventually succumb to a toxic environment.

One of my biggest regrets in my corporate career was staying in a position too long. At this time, I was part of a leadership team where the CEO had just recently promoted someone with whom he was having an affair. He began hiring executives all around him with low competence but high loyalty in order to protect his fiefdom from those who might not condone his unethical behaviors.

This created a politically charged work environment. We fell behind our competition in market share. We had major quality issues which made our customers unhappy. Employee morale was low. There was a general lack of trust within the leadership team as each of the departments fought to get their budgets approved and to protect their own status within the organization.

As I look back on my career, one of the bigger mistakes I made is not speaking out against the dysfunction. My confidence suffered from being new to the company. I felt like I could insulate my own department from the toxicity surrounding it. At one point, the trust was so low, I fell into that horrible 20% “actively disengaged” category of workers that a Gallup survey uncovered. My work and my health suffered. I was that boiling frog.

The frog story is a metaphor for the inability of people to react to detrimental changes that occur gradually. In leadership or life in general, earthquakes are easily noticed. A sudden takeover or huge turnover is obvious. But what about the small but incessant shake-ups? Before too long the foundation has turned to quicksand and we start sinking without noticing it.

The reason behind our inability to notice small, detrimental changes, could be fear or neglect. However, the foundation of leadership is standing on a firm foundation of doing what’s best for the entire organization; rising up and preventing the foundation from crumbling.

Great leaders must not only notice the erosion of what makes the organization healthy, they must intervene before the damage moves to a point of no return.

Yet all too often, leadership tries to project an image of command and control, assuring their followers that reverberations from failures are just temporary. That leadership knows better. Indeed; that is the death knell of a boiled frog.

Combined, small indifferences and indulgences are causing major shifts. Perhaps like our earth, the work environment is getting hotter; fragile ecosystems are destabilized by ethical erosions; and desserts from lack of productivity and innovation are expanding, causing the environment to fracture. Futile change initiatives such as reorganizations are simply our desperate scramble to save our souls. Sadly, only a few strong leaders realize that disaster is around the corner.

Many people and organizations are like the boiling frog, too comfortable in their setting to realize that to remain there means gradual harm or death. In life, some who remain in an abusive relationship allow it to continue until the abuse becomes accepted and rationalized as the abuses intensifies, until the abused person becomes resigned to the hopelessness of their reality.

The same dynamic happens in an unsatisfying job – we can get slowly “cooked to death” while complacently or fearfully just getting by…until retirement if we can make it that long. The ‘boiling frog syndrome’ even impacts those who live a sedentary life because they resent the time or energy required to exercise, gradually sacrificing their health.

Some who pass over an opportunity because it appears too threatening can eventually succumb to boredom or regret that will lead to an unsatisfying life. And then there’s the boiling frog syndrome that affects fast food eaters, whose poor diets can clog their arteries because they just don’t want to hassle with preparing or eating healthful foods.

Our body and soul requires movement in order to thrive, just as a healthy lifestyle includes mixing things up once in a while, by trying something new like piano lessons once a month or cooking a new recipe. Even small modifications to the daily routine can eventually lead to a more healthful norm. Finding a friend or accountability partner can bolster our resolve, like an exercise partner, or a mentor.

Each barrier crossed in trying something new sets-up greater confidence to take on even greater challenges. It’s important to remember our victories along the way, and if we’ve failed a time or two or more, simply begin again, try a different path, or start something completely new. A stagnant or fearful life can breed disease, just as a vibrant and confident life often leads to vitality.

Good habits are comforting in a positive way and should not be confused with becoming too comfortable with bad habits. The healthy life requires a mix of both new and old.

Our job as leaders is to face problems with solutions, not acquiescence. If the environment is toxic either change it or leave it. There really is no alternative. The easy way just gets us all “cooked.” I hope this inspires you to make a difference and save some boiling frogs in the process. If so you’ve made my day!

– Randy Kay is a CEO of TenorCorp/PACEsetters, a strategic and talent development firm. Prior to this he has overseen training and development for top performing companies, been a biotech CEO, Board Member for over 20 organizations, executive for Fortune 100 companies, and has published four books and several articles in business magazines such as Switch & Shift and Forbes as well as conducted interviews through numerous networks. He is also an ordained minister and trained corporate counselor. Do you want to grow your leadership ability? If so contact us at www.pacesetters.training

“We cannot become what we want to be by remaining what we are.” – Max DePree