How to be Effective when Your Leader is Ineffective

I find myself supporting leaders who are trying to thrive and survive “in spite of” and subject to ineffective leadership from the people they report to whether that be Senior Executives, Presidents and CEO’s or Boards.

Organizations continue to be moving away from siloed, top down approaches to more collaborative, cooperative, risk embracing and engaged cultures. Change continues but it’s not complete and ineffective leadership is getting in the way of that happening.

Changing strategic direction, business processes or practices are examples of transformational change that organizations aspire to. Planned outcomes whether it be a re- orientation of service offerings, product time-to-market or innovation are identified as targeted outcomes for the change. Great effort and energy is being put in to these changes particularly when it comes to leading and engaging workforces, however these are external changes and that is only one piece of what is required to make change last.

The thing is, as change happens “Transition” occurs. William Bridges defines Transition as the state that change puts people into.  The change is external (the policy practice or structure of the organization or leader is trying to bring about, while the transition is internal (a psychological reorientation that people must go through before the change can work). He goes on to say that the trouble is, most leaders imagine the transition is automatic and that it occurs simply because the change is happening. But it doesn’t. It is a significant part of organizational transformation and change that is often overlooked by organizations. This is where I see leaders struggling today. Good leaders are needing to manage around it because the people who they report to don’t get it or won’t get it.

Organizations are trying to push through change without adequately looking after and understanding the identity shifts that need to be supported for the people in the process. If you’re changing how the organization does things then you are changing the circumstances around how people engage and relate to what those changes will mean and require of them. That is personal. Change involves painful work, is vulnerable and requires individuals to move through leaving familiar ways of doing things into what is unfamiliar and can, if not managed carefully, involve loss of self-esteem, melancholy or depression and questioning of skills, abilities or even fit with the organization. This needs to be embraced not ignored if transformation is to fully take place and the employee engagement and satisfaction met in the process.

Largely I believe this lack of commitment to the “work” is a result of several possibilities including; leaders failing to appreciate the importance of this work, a lack the understanding of how to engage and implement the transformational process for people or simply ineffective or poor leadership practices getting in the way of others trying to do the work.

I also wonder if some of this resistance involves demographics. Bluntly put, some of the “old guard”, senior leaders who have been around for a long time and still approach leadership from an autocratic and results/profit only model are getting in the way of more progressive and younger leaders wanting to invest and do things differently and are finding their efforts thwarted when it comes to getting the buy-in and funds they need from the top.

Regardless of why, leading under these kind of circumstances is helped by:

  • Look to others in the organization with similar vision and commitment to support the kind of transitional efforts that you can control – find your allies, they exist!
  • Put this as a line item in your own functional budget!
  • Work closely with peers to lobby for change – “it takes a community”
  • Most importantly “Be the change you want to see”

If you don’t like what you see in other leader’s behaviors then show up in a way that reflects the behaviors you do. Ask yourself if you’re willing to wait out the tenure of the ineffective leaders in your organizations and in the interim influence around them. And if ultimately you have tried to be heard and have done everything you can to affect the change and it hasn’t worked then it may be time for you to lead your way out from a place of strength not a place of failure and with invaluable lessons learnt.