• Signs of the Spineless Leader

    by  • May 24, 2012 • Leadership

    spinelessDo you have to meet a spineless leader to know one? Not necessarily. Recently, I unveiled a spineless leader upon learning how he handled a single set of circumstances – the orchestrating of an unfair and unjust hiring practice that covertly circumvented the promotion of the best candidate. This is all I needed to visualize the yellow stripe illuminating from the back of his neck to the base of his spine.

    For sure, the details of this tragic case would make for juicy story-telling. But I’ll not go there because the story is a little too close to home. All I’m going to do is use this politically-motivated example to articulate five signs of a spineless leader. If you see any of these within the leadership of your organization, beware. I suggest you think seriously about moving on.

    1. Spineless leaders refuse to hire people better than themselves. They feel threatened that star performers will show them for who they really are. Their leadership practices weaken and demotivate the team. Ultimately this weakens the organization’s product or service.
    2. They hide behind, and manipulate self-appointed committees to get what they want. This mitigates the ramifications of the decision they want to make, and allows them to escape the responsibility for that decision.
    3. The decisions they do make seldom put stakeholders first. These stakeholders can be customers (a business leader), constituents (a politician), or students (a school administrator).
    4. They dodge the truth and avoid the tough decisions by asking questions – superficially seeking the opinions of followers. Too many “What do you think?” questions are nothing more than avoidance.
    5. They answer questions by beginning their response with, “That’s a good question.” This gives spineless leaders time to choreograph a political response that either fails to answer the question or does so in vague terms.

    Spineless leaders are accidental leaders, not intentional ones. And everyone knows it. The obvious question is “how do these cowards become the boss in the first place?” While one can attribute their rise to political shrewdness, the frightening answer is that someone bought into their “smoke and mirrors” and promoted them into a leadership position.

    Spineless leaders hire spineless leaders and create a slithering chain of command that is difficult to break. Sadly, in the case “close to home,” that person remains at the top of the heap.

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    Formerlife: Jacobs Suchard CEO (Kraft, Nabob), Strategy Consultant. Afterlife: Palgrave Macmillan Author, Historical Novelist, Business Journalist

    4 Responses to Signs of the Spineless Leader

    1. Nya
      May 24, 2012 at 7:48 pm

      well said John!

    2. May 27, 2012 at 4:23 am

      John, thanks for this. The spineless leaders are sometimes called sociopaths. The come in many forms, male and female. Fortunately they represent only a small portion of the people in work. Unfortunately, there are a higher proportion of them in leadership roles. They get there because the people who promote them don’t realize they are being manipulated and/or don’t want to see the damage being done. In my 19 years of consulting work I have encountered only a few people in positions of authority who have the courage to take on the spineless ones.

    3. June 4, 2012 at 2:01 pm

      John, very good post.

      In large corporation you sometimes find a kind of egocentric “bully-alpha” CEO.
      Sadly, most direct reports to this CEO who have the guts to stand up leave or have to leave the company over time. In the end the CEO has only spineless managers as direct reports around him.

      It is amazing: The CEO knows that and he doesn’t want spineless managers. But he doesn’t want or is unable to change his own behaviour.
      Best Regards

    4. John
      June 7, 2012 at 4:28 pm

      Good news story. Seems another employer saw the merits of that best candidate. She has moved onward and upward, elsewhere. As articulated in the blog, spineless leaders weaken their organization.