1. Moran, John PhD, MBA, CMQ/OE, CQIA, CMC
  2. Beitsch, Leslie M. MD, JD

Article Content

Leaders help themselves and others do the right things.1 They set direction, craft an inspiring vision, and create pathways to that new destination. Leadership is about mapping out where you need to go to "win" as a team or an organization. It is dynamic, exciting, and convincing. Yet, while leaders set the direction, to be successful, they must also use management skills to guide their organization on the journey to the right destination in a smooth and efficient way.2


Douglas MacArthur said,


A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not set out to be a leader, but becomes one by the equality of his actions and the integrity of his intent.3


Much has been written about leadership and the successful styles that great leaders have used to facilitate change. All too often the leadership texts neglect to mention the other types of leaders-those lacking a leadership style-who lead in absentia. Through a combination of serendipity, randomness, or monumental oversight, these leaderless leaders somehow become a leader of a group by default. Someone departed unexpectedly, leaving an unexpected vacuum. On an interim basis, the person with the most seniority stepped into the void, no one else wanted the job, or there was a hiring freeze and the temporary role became a permanent leadership abyss.


We have all seen this happen: an unprepared person is thrust into the role of leader and is clueless about what to do. In essence, they receive no coaching or mentoring regarding what a good leader should do from those promoting them. They are typically left on their own, to sink or swim against a tide of indifference among a group that may be impervious to motivation. The hallmark of the leaderless leader's transition is floundering and serial poor decision making. The casual observer will note a stampede toward the exit ramp by the most competent employees. The response by those who promoted them is to not fire them-it would be a negative reflection on their judgment. Systematically, but far too slowly, the nonleaders are moved into areas where they can do less harm. This is accomplished by downsizing the department, reducing their budget, or span of responsibility, thereby containing the irreparable damage their mis-selection has engendered.


Leaderless Leaders' Mismanagement Styles

Groups without leaders typically fail; because of a lack of leadership, they are otherwise known as "leaderless groups."4 A leaderless group is defined as "a group that does not, at the time (in context), have a leader or figurehead through which executive decisions are typically made." In some cases an interim leader will be appointed. In the Table, selected archetypes of leaderless management styles are described, and the adverse impact on the organization is detailed.

TABLE  Leaderless St... - Click to enlarge in new windowTABLE * Leaderless Styles

Avoiding the Leaderless Vacuum

While all of these types of leaderless management styles seem humorous, they, unfortunately, are a real downer for the employees in the departments that they manage. Their actions, activities, and noninvolvement with the organization and department impact everyone. They leave their employees de-energized and powerless, which affect their performance and further drag down the department's perception within the organization. Such leaders play favorites, do not objectively assess their employee's performance, and undermine others to make themselves look more capable.


To prevent the tyranny of leaderless leaders, organizations need to define and encourage a style of leadership that fits the culture they are trying to develop. Once this style is defined, organizations need to train their leaders in this style and give them coaching and support on how to execute it effectively. Good leadership promotes sound organizational health by paving the pathway to success and facilitating employees' engagement in achieving the vision.


Leading organizations are always trying to determine the key leadership skills they should be focusing on that will yield the desired results. McKinsey & Company's recent research suggests that a small subset of leadership skills closely correlates with leadership success.5 It found that leaders in organizations with high-quality leadership teams typically displayed 4 types of behaviors that account for 89% of leadership effectiveness:


* Solving problems effectively. The process that precedes decision making is problem solving, where information is gathered, analyzed, and considered. This is deceptively difficult to get right, yet it is a key input into decision making for major issues as well as daily ones (such as how to handle a team dispute).


* Operating with a strong results orientation. Leadership is about not only developing and communicating a vision and setting objectives but also following through to achieve results. Leaders with a strong results orientation tend to emphasize the importance of efficiency and productivity and to prioritize the highest-value work over other choices that consume costly resources. Think performance management systems.


* Seeking different perspectives. This trait is conspicuous in managers who monitor trends affecting organizations, grasp changes in the environment, encourage employees to contribute ideas that could improve performance, accurately differentiate between important and unimportant issues, and give the appropriate weight to stakeholder concerns. Leaders who do well along this dimension typically base their decisions on sound analysis and avoid the many biases to which decisions are prone.


* Supporting others. Leaders who are supportive understand and sense how other people feel. By showing authenticity and a sincere interest in those around them, they build trust and inspire colleagues to overcome challenges. They intervene in group work to promote organizational efficiency, allaying unwarranted fears about external threats and preventing the energy of employees from dissipating into internal conflict.5




Organizations can make leadership improvements by encouraging, focusing, and training their leaders to engage in the aforementioned 4 types of behaviors. This is a healthy starting point for public health organizations to develop leaders who truly lead and inspire their employees. They need to supplement those behaviors with others that are particular to their organization's future direction. An organization needs to acknowledge its leaderless leaders who are in these positions by default-then either provide them the tools to become successful leaders or place them where they cannot adversely impact the health department. There are many types of leadership self-assessments an organization can use as part of the annual performance review cycle, and they should select or develop one that best captures organizational needs and values. While this self-assessment can be a painful reflection for individuals, it is in the organization's best interest and overall health to do so.




1. Drucker P. Accessed March 4, 2015. [Context Link]


2. Mind Tools. What is leadership? Accessed March 4, 2015. [Context Link]


3. Moore J. Leading from the front Lines. Accessed March 5, 2015. [Context Link]


4. Psychology Dictionary. What is leaderless group? Accessed March 6, 2015. [Context Link]


5. Feser C, Mayol F, Srinivasan R. Decoding leadership: What really matters. McKinsey Quarterly, Insights & Publications. January 7, 2015. [Context Link]