Is Chaotic Leadership really “a thing”?

The headlines are full of judgments against our current Commander-in-Chief as running a chaotic administration, leading by instinct, and other unflattering terms to describe his management style. Mr. Trump’s response is that, aside from everything being “fine”, he likes being unpredictable, thinks conflict is good, and that he “gets a lot of things done”.

But the White House is not the only workplace where chaos reigns supreme. Leaders from every sector of the economy, from corporations to small churches, fall prey to this management style that, no matter who you are, has similar results.

Creative, innovative, bold, and fast-paced are all adjectives that can be applied to the best leaders around. But if these qualities are not tempered by a clear vision, long-term strategy, alignment within the organization and strong, cohesive leadership teams, there’s a pretty good chance that the resulting style can be best described as chaotic.

Here are eight qualities and outcomes of chaotic leadership: 

Chaotic leaders tend to have poor insight and judgment about their communication and management styles and the impact it has on their staff. No one plans to lead by chaos or even wants to. But these leaders see themselves completely differently than how other see them. They tend to be blind to the impact of how they manage and solve problems. What they may think of as a creative and exhilarating work environment may be experienced by staff as unsettling and disconcerting. At its worst, it can be complete pandemonium.

Drama is ever-present and seen in conflicts and miscommunication from top management down to front line level. Apple trees produce apples and pear trees produce pears. Chaotic leaders produce chaos and drama that filters down to every layer of the organization. If they are honest, many such leaders actually thrive on the drama they produce. They may be addicted to urgency and the adrenaline rush of averting disaster.  As a consultant I am often called in to “fix” staff teams that are conflict-laden. Ten out of ten times, the conflict trickles down from a chaotic boss who is unfocused, either causes conflict or ignores it, leads poorly and leaves it to others to deal or not deal with ramifications.

Chaotic leaders are inconsistent in their expectations of their team when it comes to resolving dilemmas. There are no clear expectations or protocol for managers or supervisors to observe.  Some chaotic bosses micromanage while others are absentee. Expectations change so frequently that the staff is kept off-balance, paralyzed, and unwilling to solve problems on their own for fear of being criticized.  These managers meet infrequently if at all with their direct reports. A lack of supervisory meetings with direct reports represent missed opportunities to communicate or to resolve issues before they mushroom into crises.

Staff are hired whose values and vision conflict with overall organizational goals. Poor hires are a hallmark of chaotic leadership. Many hires are done impulsively, either because the leader happens to like a particular candidate, or because they are in too much of a rush to vet the person.

There is a revolving door of sometimes conflicting goals and objectives. Neither staff nor customers can state with certainty what the organization stands for at any particular time. One minute a church’s mission may be totally outward focused towards missions, only to change in only a year’s time, to a primarily inward, pastoral focus. An actual example I have observed many times over is the beauty salon that also houses a travel agency, tax preparation and printing shop.

There is unusually high staff turnover. People quit in frustration from the pandemonium and lack of clarity about their role. Every employee needs to feel good about the work they do, but with positive and constructive feedback and revolving objectives, they are never evaluated for what they actually were hired to do. Often, they are never evaluated at all. Between staff leaving and changing priorities, there are seldom updated organization charts and reporting relationships are unclear.

Meetings are poorly run with agendas chock full of strategic, tactical and superfluous items. I have found that meetings are often the place where you see organization leadership dynamics most clearly. Staff at any organization tend to hate meetings, and for good reason. They are too long, boring, chaired by an unfocused leader, and end without action items, or with actions that will never be reviewed by the following meeting. Chaotic leaders chair chaotic meetings. If the leader is excited about developing a new app, for instance, everyone is expected to “push on the same wall” with objectives that will help meet that goal. After time, with money and human capital engaged towards that end, the leader then announces the next new thing they want everyone to get behind. Workers who were taken off prior assignments to create that new app must now add to their workload the “next new thing” with a deadline that conflicts with what they were already working on. Things that could have been dealt with via phone call or email are stuffed into already packed agenda and given way too much time given their relative unimportance. Discussions meander, adding time needlessly.

There is hope!  Here are successful, tested tactics:

  • Executive coaching by an outside consultant or strategic planner, can go a long way in providing insight and specific approaches that help refocus. A surprising number of people were never trained in how to lead or manage. They were promoted after passing an exam, have a degree related to the field, had years of experience on the job or as a result of cronyism and/or nepotism. Neither of these guarantees that a person will make the transfer from worker to middle or upper management with the required skills. One requirement: humility and a teachable attitude on the part of the leader. Be humble enough to allow this coach to hold you accountable to your short and long-term objectives. Ask for their help in being a more disciplined leader.

 

  • Hold yourself accountable to your leadership team, as well as your coach,  by spending extended time, like two half-days to hammer out your long and short (3 month) term strategic goals. From there, every meeting, hire, project or initiative must be in the advance of that goal. If it’s not, toss it. Keep those goals prominent; you can put charts in your meeting rooms (highly recommended), on your electronic communications as a header or footer and on your external publications. Include it on your printed meeting agendas.

 

  • Improving meetings are the easiest and quickest way for the chaotic leader to implement positive change and start providing clear and consistent leadership that helps team members do their job. Chaotic leaders are notorious for endlessly long, rambling agendas with no central focus. Don’t be the only one setting the agenda! Invite input from a representative from each department that will be attending, up to 3 or 4 people max, including you. Divide agenda items into those that are about long-term strategic issues, items that are best dealt with in quick check-ins, and tactical agenda items about issues effecting the day-to-day operation of your organization.  Then create separe meeting schedules for each category. After each meeting, invite attendees to evaluate how it went. Incorporate the best suggestions into your future meetings. For the best meeting advice I have seen, check out the book Death by Meeting by Patrick Lencioni.

 

  • Schedule regular meetings with each member of the leadership team. It’s shocking how few chaotic (and even non-chaotic) leaders do this. Supervise no more than 5 or 6 direct reports, creating a structure where these staff (provided they supervise a team), in turn can use the same meeting schedule. Occasionally, group supervision (of a small number) can work as well. In these meetings, set a standard agenda (i.e. check-in – “how are you doing?”), report about positive developments and areas needing help or support, with at least one follow-up action item for the next meeting.

 

  • Use project planning software and methods to track progress. This is an excellent way to get the team on the same page and it provides room to chart progress on both strategic and tactical, short-term objectives. It helps the most chaotic leader to focus on deliverables and stick to one mission.

 

  • Ask your director if a reorganization of your department may be in order. Sometimes over years a simple, single-mission-focused entity grows to a multi-layered organism without the concomitant revision of the organization chart. Perhaps reporting relationships need to change or another layer of middle management added. It’s amazing how much can be untangled by simply taking a fresh look at the visuals of how your role has changed.

 

Finally, it wouldn’t hurt to take a couple of “personality tests” to gain a greater awareness of how you communicate, solve problems, and come across to others. Some are more in-depth than others, but to start, I recommend free D-I-S-C personality profile  and free Myers-Briggs test .  I have often administered these tests to a team right after the leader took it. Then the team can understand their dynamics better, and give you, the leader, insight into how your profile impacts them.

Chaotic leadership is very damaging to an organization’s productivity in addition to being disheartening to staff. If any of this sounds like you, get a coach or mentor immediately. You owe it to all of us.

 

 

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