Leading When You’d Rather Be Leaving

By: Tim Elmore

There is a new term describing the challenge many organizations face today. It’s called absentee leadership. A leader or manager may be physically present but psychologically and emotionally absent. Why? They’re just not up to the challenge.

2015 survey of 1,000 working adults showed that eight of the top nine complaints about leaders concerned behaviors that resembled absentee leadership. Employees were most concerned about what their bosses didn’t do, not what they did. Too often, organizations settle for a leader who does nothing, because at least that means they did nothing wrong. They choose absenteeism or adversarial relationships. 

I recently read a story about this in the Harvard Business Review: “Two senior, well-regarded faculty members called the provost to complain about their dean because, they said, he wouldn’t do anything. The provost responded by saying that he had a dean who was a drunk, a dean who was accused of sexual harassment, and a dean who was accused of misusing funds, but the law school dean never caused him any problems. So, the provost said, the faculty members would just have to deal with their dean.”

Do you see the logic behind his argument? While a passive, possibly even incompetent, leader was sub-optimal, he was the lesser of two evils. It was better to have an absent leader than a leader with active misconduct.

What fosters this? What makes active leading today so tough?

A Different Kind of Employee

To be candid, I understand the temptation for leaders to be no-shows when challenges arise. People join our teams today with different mindsets than they had when I began my career. 

First, they come with higher levels of education. Each new generation has more schooling than previous generations. Often, they feel they know as much as their leader does and can play an armchair quarterback.

Second, they bring greater expectations than previous folks did. People expect more and can be upset when managers don’t meet those expectations. Conflict increases based on the distance between expectations and reality.

Third, people bring a higher sense of entitlement. Research shows a growing number of people, especially young people, are developing an entitlement complex. A study on entitlement by the University of Hampshire found that youth born between 1988 and 1994 scored 25 percent higher on entitlement than people ages 40 to 60 and 50 percent higher than those over that age range.

Fourth, studies show folks come to work with higher levels of emotion. When I first led a team, a common phrase in the workplace was, “Leave your personal problems at the door.” Today, the watchword is, “Bring your whole selves to work.” For many, this means people feel at home expressing emotions that can derail the workflow.

Finally, people enter a job with greater levels of exposure. Thanks to social media, team members have been exposed to the dirt on others, especially leaders. Maybe even you. 

So, what can we do to lead them well?

Believe it or not, I’m convinced one secret to effective leadership today is to practice paradoxes. Uncommon leaders cultivate the skills to embody seemingly contradictory traits that usually aren’t found together. For instance, these leaders are both confident and humble. 

Let’s define this and discover why this is true. 

What Is a Paradoxical Leader?

As I interfaced with one CEO recently, he grieved, “I must be a strategist, a cheerleader, a story-teller, a therapist, a futurist, and a motivational speaker.” He may be right. I believe embracing these types of paradoxes may be our only saving grace during such complex times.

Defined simply, a paradox is an incongruous proposition that, when investigated, proves to be well-founded and true. Because the two parts of a paradox seem contradictory, we often fail to see how they can co-exist. Only after examination does the irony make sense. 

Paradoxes are strange, yet I believe they explain ineffective leaders. Because our world today includes so many complex angles, only leaders who can serve in a multi-dimensional fashion have any hope of thriving in such volatile times. In fact, embodying a paradox has long separated exceptional people from average ones.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “The test of first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

Here are some significant leadership paradoxes that might be helpful to you as you lead:

  • Uncommon leaders embrace both visibility… and invisibility. 
  • Uncommon leaders are both teachers… and learners. 
  • Uncommon leaders model both high standards… and gracious forgiveness. 
  • Uncommon leaders are both timely… and timeless.

They work like playing cards in the hand of a leader who recognizes which card to play in any situation. You and I both have cards in our hands. Do you know which to play and when?

I chuckled at the story of a police academy on its final day of examinations. The officer proctoring the exam described an overwhelming scenario to his class of trainees—complete with a bank robbery, a fire hydrant spraying water everywhere, a person being mugged, a wild car chase, and people screaming as they ran in every direction. It was nothing short of a crisis. Each cadet was to offer what he or she felt would be the best response to this horrifying situation. 

The most honest answer came from the back of the room. One young trainee stood up and replied, “Remove uniform. Mingle with crowd.” 

While that would be a nice option as a leader, this is an option we can’t afford. May we choose to be fully present leaders, using paradoxes to raise the standard of what it means to truly lead.

If these challenges hit home and these paradoxes make sense to you, let me suggest you order my new book, Eight Paradoxes of Great Leadership. I unpack how to practice these paradoxes in our complex world. If you pre-order now, you’ll also get a ten-video course you can watch and show your team. CLICK HERE TO ORDER.

Leading When You’d Rather Be Leaving