Absentee Leadership

Whenever destructive or bad leadership is discussed, yelling bosses, mean and toxic managers, bullies, narcissists, megalomaniacs, blamers or micromanagers flash through the mind. But there is another kind that is seldom mentioned in leadership or management literature and causes far greater harm to organizations - referred to as absentee leaders, the chronic avoiders or silent killers. These individuals in leadership positions are physically present but psychologically distant or absent with no meaningful involvement with their team. They are leaders with only the title and add no value to their role, the opposite of what Robin Sharma calls “The Leader Who Had No Title”.

Their negative impact on organizations are difficult to detect. With organization’s attention often focused on troublemakers with overtly destructive behavior, their behavior is insidious as they do not explicitly misbehave or do things that draw attention to them. A few common key characteristics they demonstrate are:

Accountability avoidance: They avoid taking responsibility and are shirkers. They are more focused on safeguarding their jobs and position. They are reluctant of taking risks or chances and being held accountable. Therefore, will insist on doing things exactly the same way it had always been done. They abstain from getting involved in any work and avoid conflict. They are known to hesitate to stand up for their team. They evade decision making resulting in decision paralysis. Their only objective is to survive in the workplace and be in comfort zone.

Poor communication: Communication definitely is not one of the strengths of such individuals. These individuals are not transparent when disseminating information, and assign tasks without explaining why. They fail to provide vision and direction to the team. They are superficial in recognizing good performance and vague in giving feedback. They will often take decisions secretly involving a few of their favourite subordinates, who partner with them for personal gain, excluding the other team members.

Ignorance and incompetence: Absentee leaders’ inaction and reluctance to take decisions are because most of them lack knowledge and expertise required for the job. They are also averse to working hard or exerting themselves. They specialize in impression management, ingratiation, and are overly conforming.

Absentee leaders are silent organization killers, slowly poisoning the system, endorsing a mediocrity culture and eroding employee morale. Employees experience stress, are disengaged and there is decrease in job satisfaction. The result is low productivity and stagnant organizational growth.

Organizations must identify and address this issue by reviewing its selection process of key positions and doing a detailed assessment of the individuals identified for the leadership role. Feedback from all the individuals associated with the leader including his or her subordinates should be taken when evaluating their performance.

by Vandana Madhavkumar