The Abdication of Leadership

More and more, leaders are busy working instead of leading. With most leaders being promoted for their functional capabilities, we forget to teach them how to lead and they default to their operational comfort zone. The result is that entire organizations are micromanaging one level down and no one is leading change, strategy and real development for the future. The irony is that it is the responsibility of current leaders to help new leaders understand and fulfill their leadership expectations. Without leaders helping new leaders be better leaders, many organizations are in a vicious downward spiral. Most senior teams I work with usually have one person that just isn't cutting it as a leader. Unfortunately, I have seen this migrate to senior teams that have 2 or 3 mediocre leaders over the past several years. I actually have one client whom I believe has an entire senior team that is incapable of a person.

Leaders as Workers
Even if I am off by 50%, how is this organization supposed to function? That's they point, they are just functioning, because the entire team are acting as functional managers. They are essentially all stuck in their former jobs, doing the day to day work of the managers currently in those roles. What do those managers do? They micromanage their folks...and so on. In a bid to try and help such a team as preparation for successful strategy creation, I recently asked a senior team to tell me, and each other, about their leadership attributes. Without hesitation and with only a little hand wringing, they told me they:

  • Are overly bureaucratic
  • Are slow to make decisions and insist on layers of approval
  • Have a strong tendency to micro management
  • Don’t always trust their managers...even with small things
  • Lack the openness to criticism required for real change
  • Limit real and meaningful empowerment of managers

Surprises and Disappointments
The big surprise for me was that they were not surprised by their revelations. The big disappointment for me was that the admissions and subsequent discussion had only a marginal impact on leadership behaviors and organizational strategy. At the end of the day, the blame went to their direct reports. The senior leaders had to micromanage because the managers didn't have the right skills. The managers didn't understand the strategy. The managers wouldn't step up. It is ironic that the primary obligations of leadership are to develop your reports with adequate skills, engage your reports in strategy and empower them to step up.

Taking Pride in Abdication?
At a recent conference, a keynote speaker proclaimed he was a great leader because he could go for weeks or even months without talking to his direct reports. In fact, he insisted he could personally go to the workplace of any single person in the audience and do a better job than anyone in attendance with his hands-off leadership style. He wasn't being contrarian...he was serious. Who knew the abdication of leadership could be taken so literally.

Shining Lights
I see this phenomenon extend to many of my interactions with senior leaders. Project sponsorship is a particularly sad example. Most senior project sponsors just don't show up enough to actually provide any real leadership. Most senior leaders no longer know what it means to be an active, engaged and supportive project sponsor. The vast majority of senior sponsors measure their efficacy by the number of projects they are sponsoring rather than the project outcomes. Most don’t understand that they are accountable for ensuring the project objectives are achieved. Most don’t understand their obligation to create the conditions for success of the project manager and project team. I recently saw a really good sponsor in action and it stopped me in my tracks. What did he do differently? What made him effective as a project sponsor? First, I think he understood his obligations to the project objectives and creating the conditions of success. Also, he knew that being a great project sponsor has very little to do with project management and a lot to do with leadership...pure and simple. Here are some of the specific leadership behaviors I saw him exhibit:

  • Facing tough conversations with courage
  • Holding teams to account with class
  • Taking a more active project role without micromanaging
  • Demonstrating top notch project follow up skills
  • Knowing when to take control and when to back off
  • Brutally prioritizing and forcing scope control
  • Actively coaching project team members
  • Inspiring change in the face of reticence

What leadership behaviors do you exhibit?