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The Risks of Absent Leadership

By Jeffrey Shields posted 04-10-2018 08:57 AM


CEO Notebook |

Counterproductive leadership behaviors include distancing, overpowering, conforming — and failing to engage. 

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Jeffrey Shields, FASAE, CAE
NBOA President and CEO

Staff leadership gets little attention in most business officers’ job descriptions. It might get one perfunctory line: “Supervise the business office staff comprised of 3 FTE.” Worse, supervisory responsibilities may be de facto lumped into “other duties as assigned.” And yet management style comes up frequently in my discussions with business officers. I know many of you always seek ways to improve your managerial practices, either working one-on-one with direct reports or leading administrative teams.

To lead effectively requires the single resource that most of us have very little of: time. And yet simply devoting time to leadership is perhaps the most important thing we can do. A recent Harvard Business Review piece, “The Most Common Type of Incompetent Leader,” immediately caught my attention. Author Scott Gregory describes three leadership behaviors that are certain to erode the efficacy of any staff team.

  • “Moving away behaviors” create distance between the leader and the staff team through emotional highs and lows, limited communication or skepticism.
  • “Moving against behaviors” overpower the team and promote the leader as if he or she were a solo act.
  • “Moving towards behaviors” include being overly complimentary of your team, conforming and reluctant to take chances.

Arguably even worse than all these types of incompetent leaders is the absentee boss, writes Gregory. This is someone who has the title but does little to provide leadership within an organization. Someone who extracts the benefits of leadership but contributes little to others. Someone who virtually ignores her or his staff. In a world of fixed resources, what school can possibly afford to allocate an FTE to an absentee leader?

Research shows that the most frequent complaints about bosses concern what they don’t do.

The trouble is, our attention is often given not to the absentee leader, but to the manager who frequently loses his or her cool, or engages in willful misconduct. Meanwhile, the absentee leader plods along under the radar, eroding trust in the organization and staff morale. Gregory calls this kind of leader “silent organizational killers” and asserts they can be more destructive than those who rant and ridicule. Hard to believe? Research shows that the most frequent complaints about bosses concern what they don’t do.

To avoid this trap, here are a few suggestions I have picked up from your colleagues.

  • Prior to a staff meeting, circulate an article on leadership or education that you find interesting, and spend the beginning of your meeting discussing it. A book club among your staff either quarterly or annually may help accomplish the same thing.
  • Kick off your one-on-ones by talking about the individual’s annual performance goals and how you can support him or her. It is very easy to lapse into the day-to-day and the “to-do” list, but stay focused on the big picture and encourage your staff to do the same.
  • Make sure your staff know that one-on-one time is theirs to talk about what is going on with them. Encourage them to bring up items they want to discuss and give them your undivided attention — no texts, phone calls, interruptions. In short, be present, not absent.

What are you doing to be an active, not absentee, leader? How do you make time to fit those activities into the busy workday and workweek? I’d love to hear more, in the comments below or via email or Twitter.  

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Follow NBOA President and CEO Jeff Shields @shieldsNBOA.
From Net Assets NOW, April 10, 2018. Read past issues of CEO Notebook.

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