When your leader can’t lead

When your leader can't lead
When your leader can’t lead

I’ve had the good fortune to work for some great leaders during my career. Some have been better than others. But most were very good from one aspect or another. I learned from the best and the mediocre. I once had the misfortune to work for someone who was put in a leadership position without any leadership skills whatsoever. I decided quickly that I had made a big career mistake. I then had to determine my back-out plan.

The realization: This leader can’t lead

Having spent most of my career in consulting delivery, I decided to make a change that took me outside of my comfort zone. I accepted a position with a small but growing firm in the hopes of learning a new aspect of consulting. It took only one interview and the quick decision for an offer was made. That should have been a warning sign. It was only after I joined that I learned that my predecessor walked out without a notice.

I wasn’t on the job long before I found out that my boss couldn’t lead.

  • He was a micro-manager of all tasks, small and large. He would stand over employees dictating word for word how they should send a client email.
  • He would lose his temper at the drop of a hat, yelling obscenity-laced tirades at people in front of the rest of the staff. Everyone has a bad day where they say something they wish they hadn’t. This individual used fear and intimidation as a motivator.
  • He had had some bad experiences with a specific minority and announced that we wouldn’t hire anyone of that specific ethnic group.
  • He targeted hiring attractive young women – and told me to focus on hiring them as well.
  • He hired me with a high-level title, but provided no budget. Virtually every decision went through him. When he found that my direct reports came to me for advice, he directed them to go to him for advice.
  • He took great joy in reminding people of his executive title.

Everything I had learned about leadership throughout my entire career had been turned upside-down. It reminded me of one of those sexual harassment videos we used to have to watch, which showed bad actors playing awkward scenes demonstrating behavior that you obviously should not do.

Do I bail quickly?

I’ve known people who get mad and quit their job. Like my predecessor, they get mad one day and invoke the “Take this job and shove it” approach. I’ve hired people – and been hired by people – enough to know that it’s a lot easier to find a job when you already have one.

I also knew that even in a good hiring market, you don’t just get a job overnight. It takes time. You have to tap your network and develop new relationships with recruiters and people within other firms. It ended up taking a few months.

I also worried about leaving a company a short time after joining. I guess everyone is entitled to a bad career decision, but I knew that would be a question in the interview process. I considered staying until I had two years there, but soon came to the realization that I just couldn’t bear being there that long. I knew I had to find another position soon, but it had to be a good opportunity. Why leave a bad job just to go to another bad one?

Should I take people with me?

There were some high quality people at this job. I knew they were looking around too. Bad leaders hire good people once in a while. But the good ones rarely stay long.

I talked to the ones that were interested in my advice. I let them know that there were better opportunities out there. When I found a good opportunity for me, I pursued opportunities for some of my co-workers at my new organization. There weren’t any positions that matched their skills.

As it turned out, some of them left soon after I did.

How do I Maintain professionalism?

When people around you act unprofessional, there is a tendency to respond unprofessionally yourself. I had to remind myself that my standards were the same, regardless of the situation I was surrounded with.

Although I wanted out immediately, I gave a two-week notice and offered to assist in the search to replace myself. I ended up leaving slightly before the two weeks was up. But I went through some very awkward interviews explaining to people that I was interviewing them to replace me, a role that I didn’t wish upon my worst enemy.

When I left on my last day, I shook my boss’s hand and said goodbye. If I ran into him today, I would be cordial and say “hello.” There’s no reason to be unprofessional. I’m glad I did it the way I did.

Have you ever been in a situation where your leader can’t lead?

As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.

If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at Amazon.com

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic at FreeDigitalPhotos.net 

Related Posts
Taking Notes for Success
I don’t remember anyone ever teaching me, but I have a natural habit of carrying a notepad with me when I work.  I carry it with me to meetings and ...
READ MORE
Team Room Headphones and Productivity
In many consulting environments, we work in a team room huddled up working together. There are many reasons for this.  From a practical sense, the client often doesn't have cubicle or ...
READ MORE
The 3 Types of Consulting Approaches
If you mention to someone that you are a consultant, you tend to get a wide variety of responses. You can usually tell immediately whether the person has had a ...
READ MORE
Professionalism in Consulting
I’ve commented in my book and in this blog about working with difficult clients (see The Client Jerk).  One concern I’ve had about focusing on this topic too much is that readers ...
READ MORE
How To Overcome Your Fear
Many people have an irrational fear lurking deep within them that limits their ability succeed.  Whether it’s fear of public speaking, confrontation or the ability to ask for the sale, ...
READ MORE
The Arsonist and the Fireman
The City’s Hero The city was experiencing a rash of fires.  Arson was usually suspected but the source of the flame could never be proven. Fortunately, the city had a crack firefighting ...
READ MORE
Do You Build New Systems or Maintain Old Ones?
If you’re like me, you don’t’ like to put a lot of money into your home for maintenance.  To me, there’s just not a lot of gratification to maintenance. For example, ...
READ MORE
5 Things I Hate About Consulting
Since I wrote the first edition of Consulting 101 in 2010, an updated 2nd Edition this year, over 200 consulting-related blogs, and recording over fifty podcasts on Consulting and Professional ...
READ MORE
The Jimmy Buffett Approach to Career Management
For those old enough to remember Jimmy Buffett, but are unfamiliar with him, most would probably think he’s a washed up musician from the 70s who should probably be making ...
READ MORE
Tell Me Again About Your Great Leadership
We’ve all probably experienced great leadership.  Leaders that we enjoyed reporting to, were mentored by and maybe even developed a friendship with over the course of our careers. You may have also had ...
READ MORE
Taking Notes for Success
Team Room Headphones and Productivity
The 3 Types of Consulting Approaches
Professionalism in Consulting
How To Overcome Your Fear
The Arsonist and the Fireman
Do You Build New Systems or Maintain Old
5 Things I Hate About Consulting
The Jimmy Buffett Approach to Career Management
Tell Me Again About Your Great Leadership

  • Joyce Moore

    ‘The leader who can’t lead’ – yes I have been in that position. A tyrannical company owner – and ‘leader’ of a design consultancy. There were good, creative people in that organisation – and I saw them repeatedly and continuously crushed by the overbearing attitude of their (our) employer. Like you I felt uneasy about leaving a job too soon. I agree it is important to apply one’s own standards and professionalism to the situation. I found myself working out strategies for encouraging my employer to take a different approach. I wanted him to understand what was happening in the company – and how a different approach would bring benefits. He was, in my opinion, ruining the company by his own ‘controlling’ and micro-management methods. The approach I took was to try to make the right time for a ‘sensible’ and helpful discussion – aimed at the company’s success – therefore, hopefully appealing to his sense of business progress and development. I had some small successes – but at great expense in terms of my own emotional energy,. I realised that I wasn’t being allowed to get on with my job – and was spending a large proportion of my time thinking about how to establish some level of meaningful communication with the company owner.
    I stayed for 15 months. It wasn’t just wasted time – after all every experience can be put to good, productive use – in terms of learning from it. Looking back I would say one should either leave as soon as the situation seems untenable or you recognise that the position won’t allow you to progress and contribute to the company’s success. Otherwise you need to stay for a sufficient time to at least try out new strategies – and satisfy yourself and others that you not only recognised the problems with the ‘leader’ but tried to make changes.