An empty chair leader does not hold the best interests of the organization to heart. Instead he puts his own interests ahead of all else. And by doing so, he instills a lack of credibility in his leadership and thus operates from a disadvantaged position.
These truths rang loud and clear when I met a senior leader whom I’ll call George. George was an empty chair leader, failing to see a more effective way to lead. With a few changes in approach, he could have filled his seat at the table. Moreover, he could have had an engaged team sitting around the table with him. How?
George was new to the organization, pulled in from the outside by the CEO to lead a business unit that had recently been acquired. While he may have been a fit for past assignments, he did not have skills to engage his new team and the wherewithal to understand a different business model. From day one, George was ineffective.
Behind the scenes, he was known as the empty chair leader. And because he was not equipped to engage, he set himself and the organization back. He was a struggling leader with a frustrated team.
George didn’t get the hard rules and the changing dynamics of leadership today. He had an old playbook. That playbook was not serving him, the team he led or the business for which he had responsibility.
3 Principles to Avoid Being an Empty Chair Leader
Be servant-first instead of leader-first – George valued self-interest above service to others. My first introduction to him was at an off-site meeting. He awkwardly barged into that meeting and hijacked the agenda.
With no regard for the leader facilitating the session or the importance of the topic at hand, he created a new agenda on the fly. This agenda was all about him.
George let the attendees know how important he intended to be at an upcoming event and dominated the day with his desire to shine on stage. This approach may have been sound in meeting his one need, but it was ill conceived for the long-term. In a few short hours, the team uncovered his insecurities and identified his self-interest.
Good leaders put their needs aside in favor of the larger group. They choose to make sure they are meeting the highest priorities of those they are leading. Their focus is on the productivity and health of their organizations. One of their core beliefs is that this focus enables people to perform as highly as possible.
Be knowledgeable about the people – George was uninterested in those he led. He exhibited no curiosity about them and did not asked questions such as:
• Why do you come to work?
• What is your backgrounds?
• What values are at the core of who you are?
• What motivates you?
• What leadership style do you employ?
• What do you do outside of work?
Because he didn’t know answers to those basic questions, he used a “one size fits all” style for leading. And he masked his indifference with tactics such as brushing people aside, leaving active listening skills behind and cutting people off to control the conversation. George had no means to understand what help his leaders needed and how the help could best be provided.
Good leaders who know their people are adaptable and flexible with their style. They recognize that “one size fits all” leadership is not the best approach. Depending upon the situation, they are able to adapt according to who they are interacting with and what is needed in the moment.
Be present to a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts – George had a few men on the team who were his go-to guys. These guys were the ones he sought out for advice, counsel and decision-making.
He managed with a select few. By doing so, he missed out on diversity of thoughts, experiences and backgrounds. And without diversity, he did not make sound decisions. As a result, his credibility suffered.
George failed to understand that most of his team had previously been in a “community.” He could not see it, so he could not leverage it. Many on his team were close-knit colleagues who knew each other’s functional organizations well. They had a real sense for collaboration and knack for helping each other.
Good leaders create an organization that is about the collective whole. The organization becomes a community where people:
• Show up to be at their best.
• Participate with a sense of collaboration
• Know they are supported and in turn support others
• Purse excellence
Within a year, three of George’s key executives submitted letters of resignation. Others were on the hunt for something new. Why? Being a part of his organization was exhausting.
George failed to do the hard work of leadership. Apathy set in. Frustration levels reached the breaking point. His team members knew there was a better way.
Before George took the helm, the leaders in his group had passion. Their people mattered, and they mattered to each other. Their customers counted. And they had mastered the art of accountability and responsibility for results through collaboration.
Maybe if George capitalized on what was already there and used the three tactics highlighted above, he would have avoided the reputation as an empty chair leader.
How well do you serve others, know your people and believe in the power of the whole?