How to Deal with the Unexpected Loss of a Leader

Denver Broncos

As most Denver Broncos fans know, John Fox, the Broncos highly respected head coach, went into unexpected surgery this past Monday to replace an aortic valve in his heart. It’s still unknown when Fox will return to the sidelines, but he will likely be out for quite some time.

As a result of the unexpected leadership departure, 710 KNUS News/Talk radio asked me to join them for a segment this past Mondayon how a team can overcome the loss of a key leader and still be successful. During the interview we expanded the conversation beyond the Broncos, and I even side-stepped a few sticky political questions. But here were some of the key themes that we discussed.

It Starts with the Leader

The first key point that I made was that great leaders focus on building sustainable teams beyond just themselves. Jim Collins describes this as one of the characteristics of a Level 5 leader in his book Good to Great. ‘They setup their successors for even greater success in the next generation, whereas egocentric Level 4 leaders often set up their successors for failure.’ You don’t have to look much farther than the broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, offensive coordinator Adam Gase, and the ace quarterback Peyton Manning to know that John Fox has helped create a team greater than himself.

Then, The Right People 

If you look at the Denver Broncos team, it’s obvious that they have a talented bench both on the field and off. This leads me to my second point. Great teams place tremendous effort in getting the right people on their teams first because they know that the right people are agile enough to respond effectively and collaboratively to any unexpected change. Most teams, intentionally or unintentionally, fill too many of their slots with “warm bodies.” Or they keep people around who are “good producers” but derail the team process. In either case, they they end up of wasting time and energy managing around those team members instead of running the business.

And a Continual Focus on the Cultural Building Blocks 

In our team development programs we guide clients through a process of developing and committing to a set of Cultural Building Blocks. The three most important components are (1) understanding the team’s purpose, (2) defining the team’s vision, and (3) developing team norms. When these are created intentionally and shared across team members, they enable a team to stay focused on what’s most important and help teams make a significant shift in how they communicate. So, regardless of when a leader steps out and/or back in, the team is still pointed in the same common direction and knows how to “be” together.

I think the Broncos have their best days in front of them, largely because they have invested in the right leaders, the right people, and in creating a strong cultural foundation.