Why Are So Many Seats At The Table Taken By Empty Chair Leaders?

Trawling through LinkedIn recently, I came across an interesting article, entitled Are You Guilty of Being A Good Leader?

empty chairThe article suggests that there are far too many organisations saddled with “empty chair leaders” – high-powered executives who have convinced themselves they are worth following but who have failed to persuade the women and men they think they are leading. The author, John Ryan, goes on to suggest that whilst there are many organisations that are being led by good people, we don’t get to hear about them because they are busy doing their job and not promoting their own personal interests. This means we are being fed a one dimensional diet of leadership failure because this not only sells newspapers, but also because a lot of news reporting today relies on the press release.

However, media is not what I wanted to discuss today.

Lately, I have been feeling a vague disenchantment with the leaders who impact my sphere. The label for my disenchantment has alluded me up until this point, but the LinkedIn article has filled that void.  The expression “empty chair leaders” is right on the money.

I often question why those who appoint leaders constantly get it so wrong. Is it because the concept of leadership is rather subjective, the selection process so imperfect, because the defining characteristic of leadership is seen as being able to influence or is it because those who appoint are so easily influenced themselves?

Probably all of the above.

Empty chair leaders not only convince themselves they are worth following, they also convince their appointors of the same. And then they spend most of their time managing up and playing a perception game. But ask the people they lead, and you will get the real story. Strip away the leader’s followers, namely those who actually do the work, and what are you left with?  An A grade self promoter spouting team building rhetoric who is an expert in evading ownership of issues and problems. It doesn’t take long to figure out who is a true leader and who is not. These empty chair leaders have a limited shelf life in an organisation because after a time, roughly two years, they can no longer hide. It’s then on to the next gig.  Those who were led remain to mop up.

It is a cycle that is too often repeated and costs organisations dearly both in financial and human capital.

Photo courtesy of freedigital photos.net

Photo courtesy of freedigital photos.net

Our culture awards over confidence, perception and narcissism. These are easy to latch on to. The true qualities constituting leadership are harder to discern – humility, accountability, mentoring and respect. To discern them you need to see through the obvious. Or is that the appointors also work on perception? Is the job interview really just an audition for who can be the best public face of an organisation?

A cynical view, perhaps. However, having no formal leader is better than having an empty chair. An empty chair just takes up room at the table, much needed oxygen and usually has a negative impact on what is otherwise a functioning team.

It is time we looked beyond the obvious and really consider who can lay claim to the achievements on an empty chair’s CV. Everyone knows you don’t need to pad the right seat to be comfortable.

This post contains my views on corporate leadership. It is not intended to be a statement about American politics, Barack Obama, his presidency or Clint Eastwood.

About the curtain raiserhttp://raisingthecurtain.netI have spent my life in offices. For now I am putting that behind me and preparing for the second act. Middle age didn't come with acceptable signposts so I am making my own through my writing. A journey shared is more fun than going it solo.

24 thoughts on “Why Are So Many Seats At The Table Taken By Empty Chair Leaders?

  1. I’ve been fortunate to have been exposed to some great leaders over the years, but no doubt there are those who exist in name only. In a perfect world, nature would deselect them. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

  2. Judy, I love this post. In our complex world, the more effective leaders are tending to be more introverted and reflective. I have known many leaders in my time and those who merchandised themselves well tend to be the worst leaders. The book “Built to Last” by Jim Collins looked at the more successful organizations over time with a data-based lens. One of the similar traits of these companies is they promoted from within. At the time of the writing, out of 500 CEOs employed in their history by the 19 organizations reviewed in the study, 495 of the CEOs were promoted from within. That means the company knew them and they knew the company. Note these 19 companies dwarfed the success of the second best company in each one’s industry. So, when you see a company herald the appointment of an outsider as CEO, mark it down, as that CEO will likely be fired within a couple of years. Great post. BTG

    • You’re right, there’s almost this professional pool of CEOs which circulate between companies. Great at grabbing headlines, but not much more. I have never understood the whole CEOs are expendable culture. Why would anyone sign up to be a professional fall guy just for five minutes of power? Clearly the perks outweigh the lack of job security.

      • Judy, I have written about this guy before, but he would go from company to company as CEO with the same BS transformation lines. He lasts from eight months to two years, gets paid a huge severance and then moves on. I have personally met him and he is very polished and merchandises himself very well. Yet, there is no substance underneath. A friend whose company had him as CEO for awhile asked me when I bumped into him “Did you know this guy was a lunatic when he led your company?” I said, “Yes, pretty much.” The dilemma is part of the settlement agreement is to not talk badly about anyone, so future companies hire them again. This clown destroys company value for several companies and walks away with tens of millions of dollars each time. Sorry for the rant, BTG

      • We have a few CEOs who use this modus operandi as well, with settlement agreements containing non-disparagement clauses. There is an expression for huge payouts here of the kind we’re discussing, we call them golden parachutes. Shareholder groups are only just starting to get a bit more vocal about CEO choices and departures, but they have not really proved an effective deterrent. And in any event, not every company is a publicly listed or in fact public company.

      • No, it hasn’t. All it does is pass the responsibility down to someone else who then will eventually take the fall and the ceo will just make more money and keep doing what he has been doing. I miss small, local businesses that knew you and you knew them. Much better way to function, in my view.

  3. Excellent! Before I retired, these were my thoughts. I especially love this string of words, “…the best public face of an organisation?” I shake my head but the problem is, sometimes that’s exactly what seems to be happening. 😉

  4. I have always found that the best leaders are those who are at the same time “detailed persons”. Sometimes “specialists” think if they are promoted to management all the nasty detailed work will go away and then they can send out e-mails all day, asking their direct reports for the “status”. Some management theorists distinguish between management (more like administration) and true leadership. So the ones who don’t want to bother with anything in detail at all call themselves leaders.

    • Totally agree. I came across a leader recently who was into what I call ‘flick management”. Delegated everything, knew nothing of the detail, made decisions totally on the big picture only and when advised of the detail countered with defensiveness. The energy it must take to keep up a perception and the discomfort when you are finally found out.

  5. “Empty chair leaders” is such a good phrase to describe this phenomenon (too bad it is a phenomenon). I think part of the problem is that leaders are rewarded for non-leadership results and behavior sometimes–namely how well they compete against their counterparts in C-suite politics rather than for actual results which they must achieve through followers.

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