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.