The Fiscal Cliff, Kicking the Can Down the Road and Rotten Leadership

Every businessperson has a story about a time they paid a price for not addressing the root causes of a problem. Some of these stories involve a decision to put up with a non-achieving salesperson for years knowing they’re never going to make it, rather than pulling the trigger and letting him or her go. Others involve leaders who remain rigid in their business-as-usual approach despite rapidly thinning margins caused by the commoditization of their product or service.

In light of the looming “fiscal cliff,” such anecdotes support the widespread belief that pushing through a quick, temporary fix, rather than reaching a long-term solution is not answer. Unfortunately for us, it takes only a quick look at recent history to see that Congress and the White House have been indecisive and playing for time—kicking the can down the road—instead of addressing the root causes of the financial crisis.

While I don’t claim to know which road steers our country away from the fiscal cliff (nor do I own the parachute that guides us safely down should we tumble over), I can say with absolute certainty that this saga is a dramatic example of very poor leadership.

As leadership coaches and advisers, we often watch as organizations opt to kick the can down the road to buy more time or wait for it to become someone else’s problem, rather than making a timely decision that might hurt a little in the short-term, but will pay dividends down the road.

Most business leaders have employed “kick the can down the road” leadership at one point in time. Here are some all too common examples:

  • You know you need to redo your website to make it more of a lead generation machine as opposed to a digital brochure, but you don’t want to explore the options because it’s too painful, or at least that’s how you remembered it was the last time you did it.
  • You know you need to have a difficult conversation with one of your team members, but the last time you did, it wasn’t pretty. So, you kick the can down the road in hopes that maybe they’ll change.
  • You know you need to reposition your company to take advantage of windows of opportunity and to avoid the pitfall of being in the commodity dungeon with other providers, but you decide to do nothing. Instead, you procrastinate and hope the problem takes care of itself. It never does.
  • You know you need to take that class on social media, but it takes too much time. Maybe you can send someone else on your team to it.

Congress and the White House are facing this same issue as they deal with the fiscal cliff, yet as we inch closer to the January 1 deadline, it’s looking increasingly likely that we’ll see another vague plan of token deficit reduction today with the promise of more meaningful, long-term reforms later. In other words, both parties will kick the can down the road just like bad leaders do.

Have you ever “kicked the can down the road” to avoid addressing the root causes of a problem? Tell us about it in the comments below.