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Avoid the risk of Overdependence: Empowering your business beyond its leader 

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Tom Wilson

What would happen if you were hit by a bus? Beyond the obvious broken bones, worried family & friends, and a very sorry bus driver. What happens at work? In your business? To your team?  

It’s a hypothetical question I have been asking leaders for years which I have always found to be the perfect jump of point for a bit of spirited self-reflection.  

If you are a business owner, you have a whole cast of characters who rely on you. If you weren’t around for a spell, or permanently… what happens to all these people and the business that brought them all together?  

It’s not something any of us like to ponder. Particularly leaders who over time have developed skin as thick as an elephant and laser like focus towards what’s next, rather than what if. It’s how they got to where they are today. Pondering what would happen to your business if you weren’t around never going to be high on your to do list.  

But what if it did happen, and not just because of the bus! It’s an important question that all leaders should be asking themselves. Can my business exist without me? Would it live on and make good on the plans and intentions I have for it or, would it fall apart without me there to prop it up?  

When a business becomes excessively reliant on a single individual or a small group of leaders it may finds itself on shaky ground. Many leaders who find themselves in this position recognise the symptoms but do not have the perspective or skills required to diagnose them for what they are. Overdependence.  

What is overdependence? 

If leaders insist on everything being checked or signed off by them before it can move through a workflow, they quickly become a bottle neck. Proposals, presentations and final plans. Commercial arrangements, supplier pricing, invoices even payslips. Everything goes through them to be reviewed. Bottlenecks slow work down. Compacting decision-making to a small group or to just one person, puts the brakes on efficiency, innovation and the ability for an organisation to react to market changes and opportunities.  

What do your staff do when they have a question? Does everyone come straight to you and if they do, do you give them an answer?  It is never the intention of a leader or leadership team to create an environment that stifles employee growth and innovation, but if this is how your business operates you run the risk of doing just that.  

Long term plans  

Last year the wealth manager Charles Stanley published a report on exits and acquisitions. It that found that almost half (48%) of the 500 entrepreneurs who participated in a survey as part of the report have no exit strategy and 37% have no succession plan. Whilst most business owners might think it’s too early to think about, or don’t plan on selling their business, this behaviour is an indicator that this organisation will find itself in crisis if the top dog in this merry band is not able to fulfil their role. It also creates a perfect environment for decision-making bottlenecks and stifled growth of employees to become the norm.    

For a potential acquirer, next year or 10 years from now, a business which is reliant on a single individual for its survival does not offer a favourable return on their investment. If the only source of information of how the business runs or what it takes to deliver your product or service is in one persons head (which is often the case with overdependent organisations), you’ll be lucky to get anyone to table at all. 

But so what. You built this business; it was off the back of your skills and determination that this business even exists. Why wouldn’t you be involved in every decision from marketing to operations and finance. It’s your personality and sheer energy that keeps clients coming back. Who else could do what you do? Therin lies the danger. If you do everything from landing clients, doing the deals, and then part of the progress at every stage, you are not spending any time on the tasks that only a leader can do. Those future facing, head up, big picture tasks that ensures a business’s success and future valuation. If you are stuck in the weeds, these are not happening in the way they should be and your businesses valuation is evaporating slowly as a result. 


It’s easy for outsiders to offer a perspective, but how could they possibly know exactly what needs to happen to make your business work?  

Having been part of organisations on a rapid growth trajectory and called in for the firefighting of relentless challenges for one in decline, I too have experienced that feeling. The quickest route to the outcome required is to just do it yourself.  Or to involve yourself at every stage to make sure it has been done the way you would do it. Thats fear.  

Fear and the weight of your responsibility for those around you drives that kind of behaviour. But that fear can as easily become your decline, rather than the jobs not getting done fast enough or the way you would do them.  

In December 2021 after Covid and further year or propping up a declining team I suffered a breakdown after a long period of poor mental health and burnout. During my recovery I looked to all kinds of sources to help get me back up and running again.  

I found the lessons in Stoicism to be particularly useful. There is quote from Seneca (a stoic philosopher from the roman empire) in which he says, 

“Many are harmed by fear itself, and many may have come to their fate while dreading their fate”

Ryan Holiday writes in his book The Daily Stoic about the quote… “The leader who thinks he might be betrayed, acts first and betrays other first. Afraid he is not well liked; he works hard to get others to like him which has the opposite effect. Convinced of mismanagement, he micromanages and becomes the source of the mismanagement. And on and on – the things we fear or dread, we blindly inflict on ourselves”.  

A business that is overdependent on one individual, who is carrying the weight that entire organisation on their own is taking a taking a big gamble with that leader’s mental health and risk of burnout.  

Stifled employee growth and low levels of innovation. Decision-making bottlenecks. A succession crisis. Increased stress and a danger of burnout for the leader. Each of these risks, alone or combined, create a business that demoralises staff, slows a company’s growth potential and weakens its valuation. 

The good news about this particular business challenge, is that you can your start doing something about it straight away. There are number of strategies you can implement to mitigate the risks of overdependence.  

👉 – Build a culture of distributed leadership: Encourage a leadership culture where responsibilities and decision-making powers are distributed across your organisation. You don’t have to be in charge to make decisions. Encourage critical thinking and problem solving in every role at every level.  

A simple technique for you to start with. Whenever you are asked a question or asked for a decision, ask them in return “what would you do?”, or “what’s the first step here”. Be a good coach and innovation will soon follow. Recognise then reward innovation and independent thinking. This not only empowers your team but also ensures that the business can function smoothly in the absence of any key leader. 

👉 – Implement Strong Governance Structures: Establish clear governance structures that define roles, responsibilities, and decision-making processes. This ensures that your business isn’t overly reliant on any individual for its operation and governance. Asking everyone to write a SOP’s is not many peoples idea of a fun day at work. Properly communicated, an initiative like this can pull an entire orgainisation together. Tools like Scribe make this job super simple these days and very easy to collaborate on. You can empower everyone by making them subject matter experts for the responsibilities and tasks of their role. Expect to see a sharp improvement in operational efficiency, which very quickly hit your bottom line.  

👉 – Spend time on leadership development and succession planning: Cultivate a robust pipeline of future leaders through continuous leadership development programmes. This ensures that the organisation is never left without competent individuals ready to take the helm. Regularly update and review your succession plan. This ensures that in the event of an unexpected leadership change or a change of personnel in any role, the business has a clear path forward rather than a crisis as they scramble to figure out what to do. 

👉 – Embrace Technology and Systems: Invest in technology and systems that support decentralised decision-making and information flow. Investing does not have to mean buying new and expensive technologies. Properly utilised Office 365 or Google workspaces are powerful allies that most orgainisations do not utilise to anywhere near their capabilities. Simple well thought out and documented ways of working are powerful systems in themselves. If it is reviewed regularly, a PowerPoint or an excel sheet will do just fine. Steps like this ensure that business operations are not bottlenecked at the leadership level and outputs continue consistently regardless of interruptions.  

👉 – Promote Work-Life Balance: Encourage everyone to maintain a healthy work-life balance. This not only aids in preventing burnout but also reinforces the message that the organisation doesn’t hinge solely on any individual. This is most successful if staff see this behaviour in action from their leaders, and leaders advocate it proactively for their teams. 


While strong leadership is undeniably a cornerstone of any successful business, overdependence on a single individual can be a silent saboteur and one that can undo years of hard work if left unaddressed.   

By recognising this risk and proactively adopting strategies to mitigate it, businesses can ensure their longevity and resilience. When you do, you will be surprised by the impact it will have on your companies’ culture, operations and bottom line.  

It’s about creating a robust, self-sustaining ecosystem where the leader is a crucial part but not the only part that drives growth. 

About the Author

Tom Wilson is an OMG Center Advisor with a long career building growing businesses. See his profile here.

  • 🚌 – Highlighting the importance of considering what happens to your business and team if you’re unexpectedly absent.
  • 🤹‍♂️ – Discussing the risks of business overdependence on a single leader and the potential for operational bottlenecks.
  • 📊 – Emphasizing the lack of exit and succession planning among business owners, as revealed by a Charles Stanley report.
  • 🔍 – Warning against the dangers of a leader being overly involved in every decision, hindering the company’s growth and valuation.
  • 💡 – Offering strategies to mitigate risks of overdependence, including distributed leadership, strong governance, leadership development, embracing technology, and promoting work-life balance.
  • 🌱 – Concluding that reducing overdependence strengthens company culture, operations, and financial performance, creating a resilient business ecosystem.