“Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence.” ― Sheryl Sandberg
It was an awkward conversation.
I sat across the desk from my boss as he let out a long sigh. “I’m not happy with the staff. They’re just not doing what I want them to do.”
I was more than a little surprised to hear those words. The staff was my responsibility, and aside from a few minor hiccoughs with a new member of the team, everyone was, as the metaphor goes, cooking with gas. They were working long days—long even for a combat deployment—and the results were nothing less than phenomenal. Needless to say, the words caught me off guard.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “What aren’t they doing? What do you want them to do that they aren’t already doing?” I asked. The last thing I wanted was for the boss to be disappointed. A big part of my job was to keep him focused on making key decisions, not distracted by a staff that wasn’t performing up to his expectations.
“I shouldn’t have to tell them what I want,” he replied. “They should already know.”
I’m fairly certain my face contorted with a look bordering somewhere between disbelief and confusion. Words escaped me. What do you say in such moments? “Let’s assume they don’t know what you want,” I answered. “Would you be willing to provide them with some guidance? Maybe steer them in the right direction?”
“You know I’m not comfortable issuing guidance.” He was right. If there had been once consistent aspect of his command to that point, it was that he never provided guidance or intent. As a result, the organization tended to flail a bit as well-intentioned leaders worked to do what they thought was right. To call it dysfunctional barely scratches the surface of our challenges.
“Sir, I’m going to need something. Anything. If you’re not happy with their performance, then I need something concrete to point to.”
“Fine,” he sighed. “Everything they need to know is in my green notebook,” he continued. “But wait until I leave to look in it. I can’t know that you saw it.”
And there it was. Just when you thought you’d heard everything, someone raises the bar. He stood up, straightened his uniform jacket, and walked out of the command post. I sat there for a moment, dumbfounded. I don’t know why I was even surprised. Frankly, that one exchange summed up much of the previous year.
I muttered something obscene to myself, shook my head, and walked away. I left the notebook behind. Stubborn to the end, I refused to play the game.
What’s the problem?
Although I didn’t know what I was seeing at the time, I was watching absentee leadership in action. He didn’t fit the stereotype of a toxic leader, but the effects of his leadership were just as destructive. He wasn’t a narcissistic sociopath, he wasn’t abusive to subordinates, and he wasn’t overtly stepping outside the bounds of our values system. He was physically present but psychologically absent.
While he enjoyed the recognition of being in command, he eschewed the responsibilities that came with command. He avoided meaningful engagement with his subordinate leaders. He failed to build teams. He struggled to leverage the talent around him to obtain results. He was deeply risk averse, to the point that any decision was a major emotional exercise. When he did make a decision, it usually came too late to make a difference and produced disastrous results. He just wasn’t “there” when we needed him most.
What’s the impact?
Absentee leadership—a particularly destructive form of laissez-faire leadership—is the most common form of leadership incompetence. Because it’s not the type of negative leadership that leads to complaints or investigations, it’s often ignored. What can’t be ignored, however, is the destruction it leaves in its wake. For us, it wasn’t just the degradation of our mission. It was the vacuum he created. We had no sense of direction. No purpose. No vision. Each day was a struggle to find meaning.
The other aspect of absentee leadership that tends to produce long-term effects is the lack of feedback. A leader who can’t or won’t engage followers doesn’t recognize achievements (which detracts from their own self-focus) or provide meaningful feedback—either constructive or critical. As a result, subordinates either feel unappreciated or they’re denied the opportunity to learn and grow. In turn, this produces dissatisfaction, high turnover, stress, and even burnout.
What can you do about it?
Contending with absentee leadership requires a very deft hand and no small amount of patience. Unfortunately, I allowed my level of frustration to override any chance of employing either of them. Leading up is hard enough with a cooperative, competent boss. When that paradigm is flipped on its head, the difficulty increases exponentially. For me, the harder I pushed, the deeper he dug in. The louder I talked, the less he listened. The more frustrated I became, the wider the gulf between us grew.
There are a number of tenets to leading up, but three are especially important when dealing with an absentee leader. First, communicate commitment. Ensure your boss knows that you are fully committed to their success and to the success of the organization. When you disagree—and you will—bring the discussion back to this point. It’s about success and nothing more. Second, exercise active listening. An absentee leader will struggle with offering guidance and feedback, but if you listen closely, they might just communicate it in other ways. Help them find those words and reiterate their importance to success. Third, be persistent. You may very well be the sole advocate for the others in your organization. Remain focused on the importance of success and coach the absentee leader to the right decisions and outcomes.
What can you learn?
For me, my time spent working for an absentee leader was undoubtedly the most significant learning experience of my career. The more I explored my own failings in leading up, my greater my self-awareness awareness became. As my self-awareness increased, the broader my perspective grew. As the aperture of my perspective widened, the better able I was to see the big picture. Gaining that big picture was essential to learning—and growing—from the experience.
A few years later, when I was working for a much more senior leader, I would ask myself what had changed. Why would one of the most senior commanders in uniform listen to me, but a lieutenant colonel would not? Certainly, the competence level factored into the equation, but there was more. There was something else. What had changed was me. I had learned to be more patient, how to speak truth to power, and how to more effectively lead up. While I’m not exactly grateful for the experience of working for an absentee leader, I’m fortunate to have drawn lessons from it that continue to benefit me today.