While some top executives err on the side of asserting a dictatorial style of leadership that poisons the working environment and stifles independent action, in my experience, many more struggle with just the opposite. Instead of overwhelming their associates with strict orders in pursuit of rigid targets, they default on their responsibility to set direction in a poorly constructed attempt to create an environment of empowerment. The results of this approach include endless discussions without resultant actions and massive frustration of well-intended personnel that want to move projects and ideas forward.
This laissez-faire top leadership style is particularly problematic when teams are facing vexing problems: a new strategy vector, the need to change imposed by external forces or a new operating initiative (e.g. a quality program). At the point in time where resolve is required to step off the cliff in pursuit of the new initiative, this leader steps back and waits for the group to agree to jump. And waits, and waits, and then waits some more, while the group endlessly debates what it means to jump. Committees are born, research initiatives established, and political agendas developed and asserted. And still, the top leader waits, fearful that asserting authority will undermine the independent thinking and free spirited structure of the team. What a disaster.
Don’t misinterpret my tone as an indictment of empowerment and the need for self-directed work teams at the senior level. I believe that the best performing teams have a wide berth when it comes to identifying problems and developing and implementing solutions. However, this type of effective team culture comes as a result of a conscious decision to empower. Inherent in this conscious decision is the understanding of all parties that there is accountability for making progress and for ultimately improving the organization. This is very different from the form of leadership where the lack of a decision and lack of responsibility for action is the permanent outcome.
I cannot speak with certainty about why some top leaders suffer from a chronically weak leadership and decision-making style, however, I suspect that it has a lot to do with a concern for upsetting people and a general discomfort with giving feedback. Top leaders are most definitely not immune from the same challenges that everyone else faces when it comes to conducting tough discussions with others. Top leaders want to be liked, they want to be respected and they want their direct reports to feel good about what they are doing, where they are working and who they are working for. All of these provide good reasons for not upsetting the apple-cart in the mind of the top leader.
The Bottom-Line for Now:
There are no magical cures for the top leader that lacks the resolve to assert direction, require action or give feedback to under-performing teams or individuals. Coaching can help if the individual recognizes his or her shortcomings and truly wants to change. And while some top executives are willing to go down this path, too many are beyond the point where they think that they need to improve. After all, they are in charge.
Next: How to survive if you work for a weak leader.