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Volume 21, Issue 42;   October 20, 2021: On Ineffectual Leaders

On Ineffectual Leaders


When the leader of an important business unit is ineffectual, we need to make a change to protect the organization. Because termination can seem daunting, people often turn to one or more of a variety of other options. Those options have risks.
Adolf Hitler greets Neville Chamberlain at the beginning of the Bad Godesberg meeting on 24 September 1938

Adolf Hitler greets Neville Chamberlain at the beginning of the Bad Godesberg meeting on 24 September 1938. It was at this meeting that the Munich Agreement was concluded, on 30 September. The Munich Agreement is widely regarded today as a failed act of appeasement.

Note that the greeting occurs at a point where Hitler is standing at a level two steps higher than Chamberlain — high enough to communicate a message of superiority, but not so high as to make a handshake impossible. Image (cc) Deutsches Bundesarchiv, courtesy Wikipedia.

Most leaders of teams, groups, or other business units perform well. Their responsibilities are important enough to their organizations that these assignments generally go to capable people. Sometimes, though, someone in a leadership position is so ineffectual that intervention is required, and for various reasons appropriate corrective action doesn't occur. What does occur instead usually seems to be a satisfactory approach at first. Only later do the shortcomings of these alternatives become clear.

Accompanying these less-than-optimum but nevertheless appealing approaches to dealing with ineffectual leaders are significant risks. Knowing the risks can remove some of the appeal of these approaches, and that can help us choose more effective responses. This post explores in two parts the dysfunctional ways we deal with ineffectual leaders. First I examine the meaning of ineffectual. Then I explore the risks of some of the more common dysfunctional approaches.

In what follows, I refer to the ineffectual leader as Leslie, using either masculine or feminine pronouns.

Ineffectual or ineffective?

Scholars of English usage have debated the difference between ineffective and ineffectual. The position I favor is well summarized in TheBetterEditor blog:

If something (or someone) fails because of its physical properties, or unanticipated events, or some other reason not due to human incompetence, it is ineffective. If a person fails because they aren't up to the task, or aren't willing to take the appropriate steps, or because their character prevents them from succeeding, they're ineffectual.

An example might help to clarify the distinction between ineffective and ineffectual. Leslie is the Director of Product Development at Bogus Software, which performs contract software development. Bogus has decided to convert its software development processes to Agile, which promises productivity gains, in part, by limiting detailed planning beyond what's known for certain about the work. But Leslie doesn't trust Agile processes, and insists on long-term, complete and detailed plans, because, "…I can't keep projects to schedule if I don't know anything beyond this next Thursday." His insistence on detailed plans thus prevents the Agile initiative from demonstrating its advantages. With respect to the Agile initiative, Leslie is an ineffectual leader.

Marla, Accompanying these less-than-optimum
but nevertheless appealing approaches
to dealing with ineffectual leaders
are significant risks
another Director at Bogus, is also having problems with the Agile initiative. Her problems relate to the cumbersome purchase process she must use for retaining contractors. The onboarding and offboarding processes are so complex that by the time Marla can bring someone on, the development team has found another way to get the work done. Marla would like to help, but she has been ineffective, in part, because of the purchasing process.

Risky approaches to dealing with ineffectual leaders

Organizations choose from a variety of possible interventions when they try to limit the damage done by ineffectual leaders. All have a mixture of consequences — some helpful to the organization, and some less so. Below is a survey of the options and the possible deleterious consequences.

When we accept the leader's limitations, we leave the leader in place, while we hope for the best. The more significant risks here relate to the leader's direct responsibilities.
But there are other risks. For example, any other activity is at risk if it depends for success on something Leslie's group must deliver. And any of Leslie's peers who become aware of her poor performance might resent the organization's acceptance of the situation.
Even worse than acceptance is promotion, which usually gives the person promoted more influence over organizational outcomes. Still, ineffectual leaders are sometimes promoted when their new position seems less likely to afford opportunities for trouble making.
Often, promoting someone to protect the organization is an illusion. The higher the rank granted to ineffectual leaders, the greater is the risk that they might inflict harm on the organization.
Ersatz promotion
To deal with the risks of promotion some organizations try the ersatz promotion. The ersatz promotion seems to be a promotion, but the ineffectual leader's new position is usually of recent creation. Because it is new, its responsibilities can be crafted to limit possible opportunities for damage to the organization. And that might work.
But in most cases, the ineffectual leader granted such a promotion receives status and compensation in exchange for little benefit to the organization. Demoralization among Leslie's peers is difficult to avoid.
Reorganization (or spinoff) provides a method for avoiding terminating Leslie while simultaneously reducing the impact of Leslie's ineffectual behavior. The advantage of the reorganization is that it hides within a larger change the relatively smaller change in Leslie's responsibilities.
But reorganization entails risk because it can be disruptive to the organization. If reorganization is happening for other reasons, exploiting it to solve the "Leslie problem" might be worthwhile. But executing a reorganization primarily to solve the Leslie problem is sensible only if the risks associated with leaving Leslie in place are comparable to the risks of reorganization.
Probation entails setting a definite time period during which the ineffectual leader must meet specific performance goals. Although probation is common in the lower ranks of most organizations, it is rarely used in higher ranks.
A very significant risk is that people supervised by the leader inevitably discover that their supervisor is undergoing performance probation. Acquiring this knowledge can cause them to behave differently, in ways that make difficulty for ineffectual leaders trying to demonstrate performance improvement.

Perhaps the most difficult option of all is termination. The difficulty, if there is difficulty, is often emotional. Leslie's relationships and history with those who make the termination decision can create quite a tangle. It is that tangle that makes the other options so appealing in comparison. The risks of the other options seem so remote, while the emotional pain of firing a friend can seem so immediate. In many cases, avoiding today's pain for oneself just invites tomorrow's pain for numberless others. Go to top Top  Next issue: Five Guidelines for Choices  Next Issue

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