When the Leader Taps Out

Leadership Lessons from HBO series Band of Brothers part 1

Don't bury your head in the sand - The Negotiator

Chips are down, the sh–* is flying, all hands needed on deck, and your leader is….AWOL. It happens more than we could imagine.

Many people aspire to be powerful, and lust for the recognition, affirmation, and adoration that often accompanies being the Big Boss. Others are elected or promoted into levels of authority and responsibility that exceed their capacity and emotional/intellectual bandwidth. Whether due to ineptitude, slothfulness, fear, or willful neglect, many leaders go missing at critical junctures.

In this clip from Band of Brothers, the leader, Lieutenant Dyke has famously “left the building”. He is only in this station as a steppingstone towards his real goal. In later scenes we see him paralyzed with fear “I don’t know! I don’t know!” when confronted with life-or-death battlefield decision-making.

“[Lieutenant Dyke] wasn’t a bad leader because he made bad decisions. He was a bad leader because he made no decisions”

This has been an extraordinary season in American history with stark contrasts between unexpected feats of heroism from astonishing people and downright abandonment of post by people we would least expect.

 “Courage is fear holding on a minute longer.” 

General George S Patton

How did a poor little state like West Virginia, by early January 2021, lead the nation in COVID-19 vaccine distribution? In the absence of a national strategy and directions from the administration in charge, Governor Justice “gathered the state’s key players and laid out a plan that outlined their fundamental priorities.” Anticipating a lack of guidance, he acted.

How did Northeast States like former hot zones New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, reverse that trend to become among the safest within months? Those governors, absent any direction from higher authority, formed a consortium and coordinated their efforts, centralized their supply chain, and implemented mutual policies to contain the spread from other red zone (high virus) states. It was critical case where people were sick and dying en masse. No time for blame or politics (at least, for the most part).

How did the people in these examples choose to fill the critical leadership void?

  • They realized that there was no guidance forthcoming from above. You can live outside of reality and wait and wait expecting the cavalry to come any minute, wasting valuable time.
  • They didn’t wait. Once you realize no help is forthcoming you must act at once.
  • They gathered key people and resources. This is not the time to “lone wolf” it.
  • They planned and executed a strategy using the authority they did possess. My friend, who operates global ministries, once said to me, “You just focus on the authority you have and the people who report to you.” In a crunch, anything that will expedite decisive action should be employed. Not a time to fight for territory.
Black Capitol Hill Officer Dubbed 'Hero' After Protecting Lawmakers During  Riot
Outnumbered Capitol police officer Eugene Goodman risked his life in a brilliant plan all his own that likely saved the lives of an untold number of legislators during the Capitol riot/insurrection of 1/6/21. He couldn’t afford to wait for orders.

There is another type of derelection of duty that can affect us at work. It was described by Michael Gerber (The E-Myth Revisited)as Management by Abdication.

When you delegate to someone, you give them responsibility for something, but you stay in the information loop. Abdicating is when you give somebody responsibility and then you disappear and you’re not in the information loop. … Now you have become the classic manager of all time; what I call the Seagull Manager. You fly in, make a lot of noise, dump on everybody, and fly out.

Ken Blanchard, How We Lead

The premise is that many people in positional leadership may have tasks they either can’t do or don’t want to do. Rather than thoughtfully delegating the responsibility while staying in the information loop, providing resources and other support, some leaders find the most talented person in the bunch and with little fanfare, hand off the job to them.

You may respond in this instance one of several ways. You may rise to the occassion as in the examples above where a leadership vacuum needed to be filled immediately. However, I have counseled many people in that predicament who were overburdened in what turned out to be a malignant cast-off of uncompensated responsibilities. These additional tasks, on top of their regular duties, SCREWED UP their lives short and long term and erasing any work-life balance.

If this is you, your stance must be strategic and proactive. While it may take a while to realize, or to get over the shock that they really did leave you holding the bag, once you see what’s going on act decisively.

  • Seek always to go the offending person first. Get everything they said and everything you said or responded to in writing. Refer to the tasks explicit in your job description for reference.
  • If you have been given work with conflicting due dates, meeting overlaps and other competing priorities, force the boss to say which they want you to do and which will have to go, unless they will pay you that extra 8 hours a day.
  • Be truly clear about what you can and cannot do if you are not refusing an additional responsibility outright. “I don’t mind doing my job, but these duties seem to be under your purview. Please clarify”
  • If you have a union rep, bring them in, if not, bring in HR and your closest manager/director if need. Be mentally prepared with your “walkaway point” or BATNA [best alternative to a negotiated settlement]. Refuse victimhood, even in these tough economic times.
  • You may also choose to use the extra load to your advantage, go on a learning journey with these new responsibilities, master the challenge and use it to catapult you to your next move inside or outside of the company.

If you are the leader who is tempted to tap out, there are options: First, spend quality “me time” reflecting on what it is that has you so at wits end. Is it good old fashioned job burnout? Are you one to hold in your feelings so much you are either going to tap out or “go postal” and hurt someone? are too many stressful personal challenges happening at once? You cannot see any relief in sight? Do you have too much work or too little support from your boss?

Get a grip on what is going on and get help, whether through your EAP* if need be, your own supervisor, CEO or Board (if you are the CEO). Say what you’re experiencing and what you need, whether more resources, hires they have told you to hold off on, time off or another assignment. Most people who quit jobs are quitting their manager, so do not quit on that basis unless there is no alternative. But it is also perfectly legitimate to quit. I have done it and it can be a legitimate, even brilliant personal and career move if thought through well. But if you are leaving due to sexual harassment, an abusive boss, or other violations of labor and EEOC laws, do not go without addressing the issue through channels available to help you. Even quitting takes leadership and follow through.

Success is not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.

–Winston Churchill (1874-1965), former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom

  • EAP – Employee Assistance Program

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