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.

CEO Is Not An Acronym For Character Entirely Optional

I read a wonderful post today by my fellow blogger, BTG, about an American football coach who suspended his entire high school football team for demonstrating poor behaviour to others and showing a lack of accountability. You can read the post here.

It started me thinking about the great character paradox. As parents we all want our children to grow up being men and women of character and our messaging of the importance of character starts at an early age. Toddlers are taught not to hit, push or scream and to share and play nice with others. Later, we teach our children to be sociable, inclusive and respectful. As their journey through life continues we reinforce the “treat others as you would be treated” rule and the value of compassion, caring and helpfulness.

And then something happens. Some where along the way, the messaging that reaches our children’s ears seems to change, at least for those children that are destined for the corporate/business world. Whether it’s from peers, educators or society the volume control on the following increases:

  • nice guys finish last
  • the squeaky wheel gets the most oil
  • who you know is more important than who you are
  • you eat what you kill
  • it’s all about the results and not the journey.

So, we teach our children to be adults of character and society and business rewards them for being anything but.

What if our business leaders were prepared to do exactly what this coach did to his team? What if our CEOs and senior managers were spilled for showing lack of character and had to earn their way back into the bonus pool?

Sadly, this Nirvana will never be reached in my life time, at least not in my industry. In business we continually confuse confidence with competence and build reward structures to promote narcissistic behaviour and traits. And what’s more, our company’s mission statements and internal policies do nothing more than add to the we value character rhetoric. Our children inevitably learn what is really rewarded and set out to play the game.

Show me a CEO who reprimands his top salesman for treating the office staff with disrespect and I will show you a man of character. Show me a managing partner who rewards and encourages team contribution over individual billings and I will show you a woman of character. I will also show you a more engaged and productive workforce.

photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

The best managers I have worked for have all been people of character. These are the few who show us that we can still achieve by treating superiors and subordinates respectfully, by valuing human beings and by being accountable for our decisions and actions. They share and play nice with others, lessons learned in kindergarten. They don’t toot their own horn or spend their time brown-nosing.

It’s not complicated. Even a toddler can understand it.

Coincidentally, I received a flyer from my old high school today advertising an alumni lunch event around the topic “What Defines Success”. The speakers are all high profile individuals either alumni or parents of present students. By assembling these speakers they have already presumed a certain defintion of success. To me its just more of the same old.

Imagine if we could spill the corporate team and only rebuild it with those who demonstrate real character?

Imagine if character was not entirely optional for our CEOs and senior managers?

Kudos to the coach for spilling his team and taking the time to teach his young charges an important lesson. It’s a huge step in the right direction.


Saturday Soapbox: Where Have All Our Leaders Gone?

Warning: This post is a little heavier than my usual fair and is about politics, although it is not political. If you don’t like to read about politics then jump off here.

We live in difficult times. Difficult from the point of view of uncertainty, both in terms of the emergence of a new world order and in economic terms. It is at these times people look to leaders, not so much for the answers to their problems, but for inspiration and motivation to find the answers to their problems.

Firstly, some terminology. In my mind there is a clear distinction between managers and leaders. Managers are responsible for delivering tasks and outcomes, they steer a process. Whilst a manager can also be a leader, managing and leading require different skills and it is rare that you find those skill sets together. There is some overlap at the centre between the skill sets, but at the edges, a leader has to have something more. Further, a leader does not necessarily have to be a good manager, rather he has to have the confidence and intelligence to delegate to good managers.

A leader has to have vision and to be able to articulate and paint that vision in a way that makes it real. A genuine leader:

    • follows when necessary and steps to the front where necessary
    • listens as much as she speaks
    • is a pupil as much as he is a teacher
    • has respect for all people no matter their culture, socio-economic circumstances, physical features or religion
    • behaves graciously
    • has confidence with humility
    • values imput from others.

Coincidentally, the quote on my desk calendar today comes from Mahatma Gandhi, who was a leader:

An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind

This quote is particularly apposite to the topic of this post.

Australia’s system of government is modelled on the English Westminster system. The people elect members to the upper and lower houses of parliament as their representatives who debate policy and pass laws. The government is chosen from the party who has the majority of seats in the lower house. Debates are highly adversarial and members often grandstand, call each other names and point score – an eye for an eye. All of this may be tradition and somewhat theatrical, some might even say entertaining, but to me it is lamentable. There are ways of conveying a point of view, graciously and respectfully without personally attacking anyone. The whole show reminds me of a badly behaved kindergarten class where the Speaker kindergarten teacher has lost control. The behaviour is not confined to any one side of politics or any gender.

Just think if we brought this sort of behaviour into the boardroom, nothing would get done. Apart from the fact that everyone would be suing everyone else for defamation, people would be highly distracted by the theatrics and the real task at hand would be forever postponed.

Outside of parliament, our politicians are constantly selling their vision/message to the people. I use the term selling deliberately because the spin is nauseatingly dizzying. Sugar coating is for bakeries, not for government. The populace is not stupid, nor do they need to be patronized. If there is a bitter pill to swallow, I would rather be told straight by someone I respect and who at the same time as delivering the pill delivers the vision for dealing with the affects of that pill.

I believe the dearth of genuine leaders and authentic leadership is responsible for the close call elections and hung parliaments around the world. Australia itself has no clear governing majority party, the Labor government relies on deals with a handful of independents, Greece is returning to the polls after an equivocal election and England is also governed by a coalition government after its 2010 general election.

What example are we setting for our future parliamentarians?

Where has the leadership gone, where are all the leaders hiding? Where are all the authentic men and women with genuine presence, dignity and vision? We need you on all sides of politics, this is a call to arms and there’s not a moment to lose.