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The Darius Effect in Leadership

This article wasn’t easy to write. Listening to a speaker this week on professionalism, conduct and leading others, there was a story shared that is familiar to many. Although familiar, something else struck me in the story that is worth considering if you lead/manage people.

It is perhaps one of the most well known stories of antiquity. Daniel and the lions den. You’ve likely heard this story used as a metaphor in business to describe how a person might be the subject of manipulation or is being cast aside; thrown to the lions. The story teaches us loads about being committed to your cause and how to handle tough and unfair situations with courage, but there is another side to this story that is often missed and teaches us even more about the dangers of a particular style of leadership.

It’s called the Darius Effect, or at least that’s what I call it. In short, The Darius Effect speaks to anyone who is in a position of leading and managing others and is detached just far enough from the details that they are easily misinformed and/or don’t have a handle on the business to the point where they have extended to much power and authority to others.

Unlike Darius’ team, who were downright deceitful, your team may consist of credible, reliable and really smart people that you’ve empowered to do a job and it may be your lack of interest or involvement that is causing this effect. The question is what level of involvement makes the most sense. The answer is different for each type of leadership role. If we’re talking about C level as in Darius’ case then it requires a delicate balance since you naturally want to empower people on your team to “run the business”. Most leaders dream of having people in their organization, especially their direct reports, who they can trust. We often hear the term “right-hand” as a reference to the person a leader looks to most on the team. Leaders, regardless of title, desire to have people around that they can rely on.

Being able to rely on someone is perhaps one of the most satisfying and liberating feelings a leader experiences. The ability to have someone share the load, carry the burden and care about the business, it’s customers and it’s people, as much as you do is a gift, a privilege. Not many have this experience and for those that do, it is often fleeting.

Darius was the king at the time of this event in Daniel’s life. Daniel had arrived in Babylon as an exile from Israel and had grown up serving the kings before Darius. Daniel was an executive, a leader and a distinguished government official and at this point in the story had been around for a long time. Darius respected Daniel and they had established trust as was evidenced in the role and responsibilities that Darius gave Daniel in the kingdom. Darius was a busy guy and naturally relied on several people in his organization to run things. Some of those people didn’t respect Daniel and his values and principles and wanted to get him bounced off the org chart.

They went to extremes to make this happen, even lying to the king and deceiving him into thinking he was signing an executive order that needed a refresh on how the king should be honored. Darius naturally believed his team was doing the right things. If you don’t know the story, the executive order (decree) stated that anyone who prayed to anyone but Darius for the next 30 days would be found guilty and executed by being thrown into a den of lions.

The trick worked. Darius signed the decree, his officials successfully deceived him knowing that Daniel, a man of value and integrity, would not honor the decree and would continue to pray. It’s interesting how those officials knew that Daniel wouldn’t violate his values. Darius was shocked when he learned that what he had signed became a death sentence for one of his closest and most trusted advisers. He was powerless to reverse the decree and had to sit back and watch the events transpire. Let’s pause there.

Take a breath. I did before writing this article. At first it seemed like a stretch to liken Darius’ experience to how many in leadership roles operate. After all, he was the king of a massive Persian empire. That said, the more I thought about it the more I could see examples in my circle of people that have behaved this way. I too have been in this spot. In fact, it is one of the easiest leadership traps to fall into.

Ignorance can be bliss but it often shows up with an invoice attached. What are some of the things we can do to offset the Darius effect tendencies we all have?

  • Be open minded but not so open that you’re mind falls out

  • Trust people to do the right things and be open to their ideas, after all that is why you hired them and why you’ve given them the role and responsibilities they have BUT stay engaged and informed. Asking questions is not the same as questioning.

  • Hands-On is good but “Eyes-On” can be better

  • I’m not sure I’ve met anyone that likes a control freak. I am pretty hands-on and it has taken a deliberate effort to back away and let people do their work without my interference. Ironically, as leaders, we know we don’t have all the answers but we don’t mind acting like we do. Keeping an eye on things is not the same as having your hands on it.

  • Make expectation management a living principle in your team

  • There is so much written on this topic. I’ve heard it said that your culture is largely defined by your decision making process. In Darius’ case, he clearly gave enormous power to his officials and then, from what we can tell, rarely questioned their actions. Perhaps this was the right management approach for his day and his kingdom. Maybe it’s the right one for you but either way, and it sounds trite and adolescent to say this, people need to be told what their boundaries are. Whether the most agile person in the world would admit it or not, we all need structure and in leadership it comes from communicating expectations to people early and often.

I’ll end by stating the most effective way to avoid the trap of the Darius Effect; don’t sign anything unless you read it first and understand who and what it impacts.

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