Lead, follow or get out of the way.

We read so much on the need to become better leaders. Let's reflect on what I see as a much more common, and far more serious probelm: working for the leaderless leader.

Working for someone unable to provide direction – the basic role of a leader – can be demoralizing. Over the long term it can even be career threatening.

What to do?

Check 'Em Out

The fundamental role of a leader is to provide direction. If they do nothing else, to even be considered marginal the “leader” must be able to provide a sense of where we're going. Of course strong leaders do much more than this, but this is the minimum.

As you consider career moves find out at least that much about your potential boss' competencies. This is imporant. Whether trying for a promotion at your current firm, a lateral transfer or looking externally for your next opportunity find this out: do they meet even this most basic definition of leader?

How? Working your network or sitting in interviews ask about the direction of the group. How has it changed, what's the process for setting and sharing it and how well is it known? Don't worry: these few questions will let you know immediately whether your could-be boss has nailed leadership 101 or not.

Follow the Tracks

Next become a tracker. Find out where the best and brightest in your new home have migrated to.

For example, have there been a significant number of promotions in the team? Have people grown to take on positions of greater responsibility belying a sense of career development in the new group? Conversely, were exits hard to understand, as people lept at anything to find a way out?

You can sense that as well.

Follow the tracks.

In Their Own Words

Finally, trust your gut when it comes to meeting your potential new boss. Pay attention to their conviction and comfort. Are they at ease discussing the challenges of the business and what it will take to get there? Are they comfortable with debate and uncertainty? Or, like a martinet do they spout meangingless Dilbert-like mission statement nonsense without any understanding of what it means or implies.

You can tell the difference.


You should develop your leadership skills.

But even more important is the need to develop your leadership radar and avoid like the plague working for anyone who is a leader in name only.

This mistake is hard to overcome.



5 thoughts on “Leaderless

  1. Looks like we’re on the same blog-writing, wave-length this week, Christopher. I love your notion of developing your “leadership radar.” There are so many downsides to working for a weak/non-leader, the absence of a good role model being one of them. I’m always interested in looking at who is “leading” the non-leader–another way to determine whether the company is healthy up the chain. Another important post. Thx.

    • The leadership radar is a useful and often-overlooked tool in our collective career management toolkit. Thank you so much for your thoughts – and for taking the time to write! – Dawn.

    • Oh thank you so much! One thing I’ve learned is that we do a poor job of interviewing our potential bosses (for the most part) leaving an important relationship up to chance. This is, how do you say, nuts.

  2. Hugely important to to be comfortable with uncertainty. Education is now centred around encouraging people to question and challenge, we need to have leaders who embrace this rather than attempt to compress it. Lovely piece, really enjoyed it – as always.

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