When your leader can’t lead

Written by lewsauder

January 6, 2017

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

Lew’s Books at Amazon:

Project Management 101
Consulting 101
The Reluctant Mentor

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1 Comment

  1. 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.


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