Leadership Vacuums Suck: 5 Survival Tips

On the left, an optical image from the Digitized Sky Survey shows Cygnus X-1, outlined in a red box.  Cygnus X-1 is located near large active regions of star formation in the Milky Way, as seen in this image that spans some 700 light years across. An artist's illustration on the right depicts what astronomers think is happening within the Cygnus X-1 system.  Cygnus X-1 is a so-called stellar-mass black hole, a class of black holes that comes from the collapse of a massive star.  New studies with data from Chandra and several other telescopes have determined the black hole's spin, mass, and distance with unprecedented accuracy.

Leadership vacuums are black holes that crush hopes, dreams and effort within their inscrutable, deadly grasp. Attempting to work within them is unsustainable over the long term. But you may be forced to do just that until your parachute is fully packed. (If you’re overly stubborn, you may also try to channel the Isley Brothers and attempt to “fight the powers” – but please don’t).

Regardless of your particular end game, you’re in survival mode. And unless you’re just another prairie dog in the cubicle farm, you’ve got people of your own to lead. Leadership is difficult under the best of circumstances but it’s even tougher when your own leaders have failed you.

This article considers a real (and ongoing) leadership vacuum and provides five tips on how to lead “your people” when you find yourself in this dreaded circumstance.

I. The Situation

Tom (not his real name) is an upper level manager (but not C-suite level) responsible for overseeing the IT needs of a large regional organization. He has been with this same organization for over twenty years. During his tenure Tom has worked under three very different Presidents.

President One was a strong leader that outlined a grand vision, created strategy, told a compelling story, invested in people and created a foundation for future success. This President was far from perfect but managed to harness “the vision thing” to drive the organization into the 21st century.

President Two was solely concerned with appearances and chose to faithfully execute President One’s vision while playing divide and conquer politics. Unfortunately, this management style and President Two’s failure to set forth a new vision prior to exiting, initiated a steady exodus of key senior mangers.

Enter President Three, who uses all the right words and has outlined a “vision.” Unfortunately, President Three’s vision is more tactical than strategic. Additionally, the senior level “brain drain” that began under President Two has accelerated and President Three has chosen to eliminate positions in lieu of filling them. This has left Tom’s department without direct representation within the C-suite as well as an expectation that this very critical department continue to “do what they do” – all without any direction or strategy. Multiple attempts by Tom to address this lack of leadership have been politely rebuffed or ignored and the department’s situation has not escaped the attention of its seventy-five plus employees.

Despite the leadership issues, Tom doesn’t want to leave. He is loyal to the organization, has faith in its original mission and is a bit like Fox Mulder – he desperately wants to believe. So, the question is: How can Tom effectively lead his department without leadership from “the top” while also retaining his sanity? If you’re in a situation like his, the following five survival tips may help you.

II. Short Term Survival Tips


Tip #1. Remain positive but don’t “blow smoke”
One of the hallmarks of great leadership is its ability to inspire loyalty and generate support during trying times. It’s a well-established fact that the mood and tone of a leader ripple through an organization like waves. With this in mind, Tom takes great care to project a positive presence even when he personally despairs of the situation. (See Tip 5 below for dealing with personal negativity). Tom can only credibly project this positivity, though, if he is also transparent and authentic. Channeling Johnny Mercer and humming a bit of “Accentuate the Positive” never hurts, either.


Tip #2. Be transparent and authentic
Your team knows when (as the military puts it) the situation is FUBAR. When this occurs, the best recourse is to be transparent with them about the overall situation (i.e. share important information). Sharing information allows Tom to have an honest and continual conversation with his team about the situation and how they as a department can continue to make a difference. This reinforces Tom’s reasons for positivity and shows the team that he’s not putting on a false front for their benefit … he’s being authentic. Tom also knows that transparency is most effective when used to connect his team’s work (as both individuals and a department) to a larger purpose.


Tip #3. Reinforce (or Create) Purpose
People crave purpose in their work. While Tom doesn’t have the luxury of setting policy or generating strategy for his organization he does know what his department must accomplish. Using this as his foundation, Tom worked with his team to create a strategy for accomplishing the work of the department. The mission and objectives of this strategy now hang on the department’s wall and work to further the organization’s core purpose. (See also Tip 2 regarding transparency). Thus, despite the lack of direction from top leadership, Tom has instilled his department with a sense of purpose. Furthermore, and to Tom’s credit, he was able to do so in in a way that directly relates back to the organization’s core mission.


Tip #4. Remain informed
When leadership fails, a natural tendency is to pull your head inside your turtle shell and ignore the larger world. Don’t make the mistake of “turtling up” even if you’re in the process of moving on to a different organization. To lead effectively (and act on Tips 1-3 ) you need to know what’s going on. Tom chose to channel Sir Francis Bacon’s coined phrase that “Knowledge is power” and stay informed. Only by remaining engaged does Tom have the informational foundation that he needs to lead his people.


Tip #5. Find a way to vent
Leadership failures create stress which generate mental health issues. When this poison builds up to critical levels you’re at risk of a Krakatoa scale explosion or China Syndrome meltdown. To avoid this, find someone unconnected with work to vent to. This person might be your spouse (careful not to wear that one out), your spiritual adviser, your best friend or your therapist. Despite it being his choice to stay, Tom’s situation eats at him so he takes pains to find ways to vent his steam. Doing so helps him to keep moving forward in a positive and transparent manner.


III. Listen to the Isley Brothers

Intellectually, Tom knows that his current situation is unsustainable and that, despite using the 5 Survival Tips, his mental health is suffering. Emotionally, though, he can’t quite bring himself to bust that move and “leave the situation.”

Unfortunately, long-term exposure to a leadership vacuum is almost always fatal and continued survival has even been shown to result in the development of Charlie Sheen Winning disorder or CSW (where no matter what you do you’re always “winning”).

So here’s your plan: Instead of firing up the Tiger Blood and staying to “fight the powers”, let another verse from the Isley’s be your guide:

It’s your thing
Do what you wanna do
Don’t let me tell you
Who to sock it to
Let me hear you say it’s my thing (It’s your thing),
I do what I wanna do……

Do “your thing” – whatever that thing might be. But if you find yourself in a vacuum, don’t be afraid to do it somewhere else. The talent wars of the early 21st century are now in full swing and you’ve got options. Exercise them. Because no one should ever be forced to endure a leadership vacuum – they suck.

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© 2015 Chad C. Harvey. All Rights Reserved