Absentee leadership is the most common form of bad leadership

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com


Researchers have studied managerial derailment — or the dark side of leadership — for many years. The key derailment characteristics of bad managers are well documented and fall into three broad behavioral categories: (1) “moving away behaviors,” which create distance from others through hyper-emotionality, diminished communication, and skepticism that erodes trust; (2) “moving against behaviors,” which overpower and manipulate people while aggrandizing the self; and (3) “moving toward behaviors,” which include being ingratiating, overly conforming, and reluctant to take chances or stand up for one’s team. The popular media is full of examples of bad leaders in government, academia, and business with these characteristics. However, my friend was describing something arguably worse than an incompetent boss. His manager was not overtly misbehaving, nor was he a ranting, narcissistic sociopath. Rather, his boss was a leader in title only — his role was leadership, but he provided none. My friend was experiencing absentee leadership, and unfortunately, he is not alone. Absentee leadership rarely comes up in today’s leadership or business literature, but research shows that it is the most common form of incompetent leadership….

If absentee leadership is so destructive, why don’t we read more about it in the business literature? Consider a story I recently heard about the dean of a well-known law school: 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.

Like the provost in this example, many organizations don’t confront absentee leaders because they have other managers whose behavior is more overtly destructive. Because absentee leaders don’t actively make trouble, their negative impact on organizations can be difficult to detect, and when it is detected, it often is considered a low-priority problem. Thus, absentee leaders are often silent organization killers. Left unchecked, absentee leaders clog an organization’s succession arteries, blocking potentially more effective people from moving into important roles while adding little to productivity. Absentee leaders rarely engage in unforgivable bouts of bad behavior, and are rarely the subject of ethics investigations resulting from employee hotline calls. As a result, their negative effect on organizations accumulates over time, largely unchecked.

If your organization is one of the relatively few with effective selection and promotion methods in place, then it may be able to identify effective and destructive leaders. Even if your organization isn’t great at talent identification, both types of leaders are easy to spot once they are on the job. They also produce predictable organizational outcomes: Constructive leadership creates high engagement and productivity, while destructive leadership kills engagement and productivity. The chances are good, however, that your organization is unaware of its absentee leaders, because they specialize in flying under the radar by not doing anything that attracts attention. Nonetheless, the adhesiveness of their negative impact may be slowly harming the company.