WELCOME TO THE VACUUM

by Matt Thomas

Some time ago my wife and I owned a small business together. We designed and executed outdoor trips for nonprofits, schools, and other organizations. Quick tip, if you are starting a business, don’t make nonprofits your target market! Anyways, after a couple years I realized that this passion project was not going to provide for my growing family so I jumped into the home building / sales world. The little outfitter that could continued to grow and even seemed for a time to do better without me at the helm. About a year into our new normal the great folks I had running the business on my behalf were about to explode. Our conversation went something like this.

Me: “How are things going fellas?”

Them: “Uh not great. You parachute into the office and pivot the whole thing in a matter of minutes, then leave us to pick up the pieces. Other times, we have critical decisions to make and need you to sign off on them but we can’t get a hold of you.”

Yikes. Not good. I had asked these guys to take the reins and run the show but I still liked being the owner and jumping in here or there as long as I wasn’t overwhelmed with other projects. When they needed me I wasn’t available or I pushed decisions out, and when I was around I overreacted to problems or opportunities and made life hell for them. Level five leader stuff right there. The organization eventually plateaued and top talent went looking for other opportunities. In hindsight, if I had to boil down the challenges to one specific issue I can say with confidence that what we had was a serious leadership vacuum.

When they needed me I wasn’t available or I pushed decisions out, and when I was around I overreacted to problems or opportunities and made life hell for them.

Today at CV, when an organization hires us to diagnose its culture and assess its current trajectory I tell them up front we can assume there will be direct correlations between any organizational dysfunction and the leadership. Leaders, whether we want to believe it or not, the strengths of our organizations flow out of our gifts and the weaknesses stem from our shortcomings, to varying degrees.

Leaders, whether we want to believe it or not, the strengths of our organizations flow out of our gifts and the weaknesses stem from our shortcomings, to varying degrees.

I believe most of the challenges leaders face today can be boiled down to two sides of the same coin: reaction and inaction. Reaction is the reflexive response to a dicey situation or unique opportunity. It is an unmoderated instinct acted upon. Strong, principled, healthy leaders can have a significant impact in crucial moments, often producing monumental shifts in cultural or organizational trajectory. Healthy organizations have checks and balances (executive teams with actual authority, financial controls, by-laws, etc.) that ultimately free up a healthy leader to make critical decisions in real-time. Where those checks and balances are absent, even the best leaders will trip over themselves. Even worse, unhealthy leaders can wreak unimaginable destruction. Leaders who rely on instinct without restraint can make grave mistakes.

Reaction is the reflexive response to a dicey situation or unique opportunity. It is an unmoderated instinct acted upon.

On the other side of the coin you’ll find inaction. More often than not it is the things that leaders don’t do that land them in challenging situations. Inaction is the deliberate decision to wait and see how things unfold and ultimately choose the path of seemingly least resistance. It is true that the healthiest decision a leader can make at the onset of an intense situation is often to stop and assess. In my wilderness medicine training a long time ago the first thing they told us to do when we arrived on the scene of an accident was to smoke a cigarette. Whether or not we were smokers was beside the point, the directive was to make sure we stopped and assessed the damage before responding. The trick is that at some point, we have to respond and step into action. Leaders who sit on their hands and hope that their biggest problems will eventually go away are setting themselves and their people up for extreme failure. Inaction is ultimately the root of deep regret.

Inaction is the deliberate decision to wait and see how things unfold and ultimately choose the path of seemingly least resistance.

Now think about any organization you are a part of.

  • Does the leader of your organization take too long to make decisions, so much so that it regularly negatively affects desired outcomes?
  • Does the leader of your organization react prematurely to challenges or opportunities, often backpedaling and changing course?
  • Do you lack clarity about where you stand and what you can expect from the leaders?
  • Do you frequently doubt the core health of your organizational culture?
  • Are you afraid to walk into staff meetings or one on ones?
  • Do you regularly question what it is your organization is actually accomplishing?
  • Do you, at least weekly, consider quitting and moving onto something else?

If you can answer yes to two or more of the following questions then there is likely a leadership vacuum in your organization.

My advice for anyone in an organization where a clear leadership vacuum exists is simple…lead.

Fortunately, unhealthy leaders usually do not last. Unfortunately, on occasion, they burn the house down. My advice for anyone in an organization where a clear leadership vacuum exists is simple…lead. Communicate and behave like the kind of leader you would follow. Our companies don’t need any more break room gossipers. Be the change you want to see in your organization, but if the house starts burning down, don’t be the frog in boiling water.