The Icarus Syndrome: 3 Warning Signs Every Leader Should See

Aug 10, 2017

By Les McKeown, CEO of Predictable Success
The Icarus SyndromeCall it the Icarus Syndrome: A once high-flying business leader finds they can’t get a break – at least not until their board hands them an enforced break, by way of a firing or a sabbatical.

How can it be that so many previously stellar CEOs suddenly can’t deliver the goods? Is it the rest of the world (or the rest of their organization) that is suddenly out of step?
More often than not, no – the person who is newly out of step is almost always the now-flailing CEO. And beware, you’re no less exempt from the Icarus Syndrome than were any of those celebrity CEOs.

The Warning Signs

Here’s how it happens: You build a business. You master it. You know every wrinkle, every nuance, every employee. You are personally involved in every major decision, and nothing of any significance happens without your say so. It’s as if you live in a zone of laser-like awareness about every aspect of your business. Until one day, none of this is any longer so – and the only person who doesn’t know it, is you.

Put it down to complexity. Complexity (or rather, to be precise, the aggregation of complexity over time) is a leadership killer. Like a frog slowly boiling to death in a pot of water, ever-increasing complexity takes you slowly, incrementally, but inexorably further and further from that ‘zone of awareness’ you lived in for so long. Over time you know less than you think you know, see less than you think you see, understand less than you think you understand.

And the kicker? You almost certainly don’t realize that any of this is happening. You still think you’re the font of all knowledge, the best person to make every decision.

There are three specific areas where your decision-making is impacted by the Icarus Syndrome:

1. What you know may still be right, but what you don’t know is how it connects with and impacts everything else.
So maybe you are still the best judge of how a new product, say, will land with your target demographic. After the growth of complexity, however, what you don’t know is (say) what the alternatives are for your customers out in the marketplace; or how difficult it is now (compared to ‘the early days’) to adapt a product after beta-testing; or how much your vaunted new product is cannibalizing your existing market.

Think of this as the ‘What you don’t know about what you do know’ category.

2. There’s tons of important stuff no one is telling you.

Then there’s the somewhat simpler category of ‘What you think you know, but you don’t’. This can be particularly dangerous. For example, you may well think that important Project Y is being headed up by Jo Soap, a stellar middle manager who you entirely trust to execute well, when in fact, that project was taken over by the untried and therefore high-risk Jim Colander weeks or months ago.

3. Your gut doesn’t work right any more.

If you’re in denial about whether or not you’re slipping in to the Icarus Syndrome, here’s a litmus test: How many recent decisions that you just ‘knew’ were right, didn’t work out? If the answer is more than one or two, then complexity is almost certainly rendering your visceral decision-making less and less effective. (This would be the ‘What you think you can intuit, but you can’t any longer’ category.)

That can’t-miss hire you made that flamed out? Icarus Syndrome. The product launch you dreamt up over a weekend in a flash of genius, but which died a death in the marketplace? Icarus. The big meeting with the potential customer you thought you’d wing easily, but which went south? You get the idea.

Complexity screws with the ability to manage viscerally. Don’t leave your gut behind, but put more of your brain in the mix to process all the new data you need to master in complexity.

How to Stop It

So, if you feel you’re drifting toward your own Icarus-like fall from grace because of the increase in complexity, what should you do to stop the drift and regain control? Start with these three imperatives:

1. Delegate (but verify).

It’s time for you to start passing off decision-making authority to the folks who really do have the information needed to make high-quality decisions. Use this phrase as your mantra: “Only make the decisions that only you can make.”

Take an objectively hard look at the decisions you’re still making yourself, and you’ll almost certainly find that there are many that you should not be making anymore. (To get even better feedback on this, ask your colleagues, peers and direct reports, “What am I keeping hold of that I should really be delegating to someone else?” Then stand back.) Oh, and make sure you institute a fail-safe accountability process to give you regular feedback, so you don’t go crazy with worry in the early days that things aren’t getting done.

2. Slow down and do the work.
In our business, we have something we label a ‘drive-by review’– it’s where someone has been asked to review a document, or read some stuff ahead of a meeting, and they give it a cursory glance and email it back with ‘Works for me’ or something similar. Drive-bys are the on-ramps on the road to a full-fledged Icarus syndrome.

Do the work. Read stuff – with your full attention. Sit in on information-sharing meetings. Go meet your people and ask hard questions. Listen to long answers.

3. Make remaining decisions in teams.

After you’ve effectively delegated much of your decision-making (see 1 above), run whatever decisions are left through this prism: “What’s the best (i.e., optimal, most efficient and effective) team to make this decision?” If the genuinely truthful answer is “Just me, on my own”, then fine, make the decision on your own. If it isn’t (and I can guarantee that the honest answer in 80% of the cases won’t be ‘Just me’), then find an effective way to get that team together.

At root, complexity in organizations is the primary contributor to the Icarus Syndrome (read: Getting yourself fired out of your own job). Don’t let it happen to you.


Learn the decision-making strategies your business needs to beat growing complexity!