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The Leadership Vacuum


Disciplines > Leadership > Leadership articles > The Leadership Vacuum

The vacuum | Where there are no leaders  | Where current leaders are ineffective | Where leaders are locked in battle | See also


The vacuum

There are times and situations where there is a need for leadership but a singular lack of it.

For example:

  • In a natural disaster, situation such as a flood or where a building has collapsed, in which people's lives are at risk and there is no clear organization to manage the event.
  • In a crisis where people are paralysed and nobody is helping or directing them.
  • In situation where a group of people are working together and the appointed leaders are ineffective, incapable or missing.

A leadership vacuum can be detected by factors including:

  • People working by themselves, with little collaboration between individuals.
  • Groups of people working but with little coordination between groups.
  • People working mostly together, but ineffectively, inefficiently or without clear purpose.
  • Some leadership, but which is weak, giving vague, wandering or generally poor direction.
  • Lack of respect for leaders, with grumbles about them, limited motivation and personal agendas coming to the fore.
  • Conflict between groups and their leaders as each seeks limited resources and a position of higher status and control.

Where there are no leaders

In situations such as crises where there is no real leader the natural response of groups is to actively seek a leader and to respond positively when someone starts to take the role.

All you need to do is pick up the reins, speak confidently and tell people what to do. You then keep going around people, listening, cajoling and motivating them to a single purpose.

A danger here is that followers acquire unreasonable expectations of the leader as they seek salvation and absolve themselves of all responsibility. When perfection does not happen, they feel betrayed by the leader and show their anger in unconstructive ways, from waning cooperation to ousting the leader and starting again.

Where current leaders are ineffective

Leaders are sometimes not up to the job. Perhaps they have been promoted beyond their level of confidence. Maybe they have lost interest in leading. Sometimes the ground has moved beneath them so they find themselves in confusing new territory. Whatever the cause, they are not giving enough. At best, their followers are morbidly curious as to what will happen next. At worst there is open revolt.

It you want to pick up the reins, sometimes asking the leader is enough. Gaining their trust can be a good first step. You may be able to coach them and run things from behind the scenes. They may even be ready to step down and let you take over.

If the leader is clinging desperately to power, you may need to go elsewhere rather that make a direct challenge. If the leader has a manager who sees the problem, then they may be convinced to intervene. Otherwise you might mobilize the followers, leading underground resistance or even open revolt.

A danger here is that the leader, their manager or their followers do not like your actions and turn against you. If this seems likely you will need a fallback plan and maybe an easy exit.

Where leaders are locked in battle

Sometimes leaders take their eyes off the ball as they duel with other leaders (or would-be leaders) for overall control. Effectively, several have seen the vacuum and are reaching for it themselves.

To step into the ring where others are fighting is asking for a black eye as you simply become another enemy. Another approach is to be a facilitator, helping them sort out their differences and get back to being an effective management team. You can also play politics, taking sides and fighting for a chosen leader (and maybe sharing their fate). Another approach is to play the game from a distance, making subtle interventions while appearing to be neutral.

See also

Motivation of Leaders


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