What happens in a leadership vacuum?

What happens in a leadership vacuum?

We are all finding out what happens in a leadership vacuum right now. Most everywhere there is a lack of leadership in politics, a lack of leadership in society, and, where I come from at least, a lack of leadership in the public service.

What happens in this vacuum?

Fear, trepidation and ultimately chaos.

Here are some examples of why we are in the grip of this awful trio

Would you like a burger? 

Back in the day, this was a simple enough question. Answer yes and a grilled beef pattie inside a sweet bun with some lettuce, tomato and pickle would arrive in greaseproof paper. 

Only now everyone’s opinion on burgers must be heard.

I expect a veggie burger others will say I’m sorry I don’t like beef burgers but I do like a chicken burger. Others will want chilli sauce with that, another will say please hold the pickles. After much debate and discussion, it will be clear that there’s no standard burger that would satisfy everybody. 

OK, some more inclusivity but the question then becomes who chooses what the priority for the burger should be? In the absence of any leadership, there is no one to make a call and all opinions cut have equal priority. This creates a product challenge for the burger outlet.

When everyone has an opinion it’s hard to prioritise. A democratic consensus is an ideal solution but not one that can be used for most operational matters even at the government level. For example, should we buy submarines from the French or the Americans?  

All views are canvassed and it doesn’t matter whether you are a senior person in the organisation or someone who’s only just joined as an intern, everyone gets to give their opinion. 

Great inclusivity right? After all, true leaders are also great listeners. 

Well perhaps, but canvassing opinion is a tool to gauge the most common beliefs and values. It helps leaders make considered decisions but does not make the decisions for them.

Excessive asking makes everyone keen to give their opinion on all matters. Many get cranky if they’re not given the opportunity to say what they think. The plumber gets an opinion on health measures in a pandemic and the cardiologist on the price of cheese. 

Remember that opinion need not be based on evidence or facts, it is a view or judgement formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge.

But once everyone gives voice to their opinion, priorities hide under a bush.

Would you like extra value with that? 

It is a delight of the human condition that we each have a different set of values. It gives us diversity and plenty to talk about over the burger.

Values within each value set are held more strongly or weakly depending on culture, experience and nurture. As more people are added to the conversation, values become nuanced and the value propositions multiply.

A critical function of leadership is to help balance these values and to land on the optimal value set that most can agree on or be persuaded to follow.

In a leadership vacuum, the values space is filled by indecision. 

Organisations are held hostage by the committee and the plethora of values and have no idea which burger to make or what trimmings to add.

Novelty burgers

In the leadership vacuum where everyone has an opinion and all values are in the mix egos flourish. 

If my value or opinion is unusual or a bit out there, no worries. I can follow it anyway and make it happen through force of personality with a side of arrogance. There is no reason to knuckle down and collaborate, I can just go and do my thing on my own and build a burger with a tofu pattie and a slice of pawpaw instead of beetroot. 

This lone ranger approach is great for creatives and artists of all kinds. It works for entrepreneurs and futurists too but is not so helpful if the task is to make billions of burgers at a realistic price or to choose the most cost-effective marine deterrent that is in the best interest of the country.

The novelty burger has a niche market but sales always stall.

Deconstructed burger

A profusion of Lone Rangers, or whatever the collective noun might be, generates so many burger options that the whole meaning of the burger is deconstructed out of existence.

Nobody knows what the national dish is anymore and togetherness suffers. 

It is not long before any collective purpose is lost and society drifts. This is ideal for those who never believed in the burger in the first place and knew everyone should eat tofu because they did.

Leaders provide direction. It is a core purpose of the breed and they can win hearts and minds because we crave the good vibes that come from collaboration on a shared direction — the contradiction that makes us Lone Rangers in the first place. 

In the absence of leaders who can articulate a shared direction, we invent them for ourselves.

Tandoori chicken instead

Perhaps the most important consequence of a leadership vacuum is that we lose respect for leadership. Burgers are forgotten as we find alternatives in the tandoori oven.

A glance at politics in the mature economies shows most leaders on the nose to the point of ridicule and disbelief. And it’s not just Boris obviously. Recall that respect is ‘a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements’. In other words, it is earned. 

Vacuous leadership not only fails to garner respect from lack of ability, it also erodes the repository of respect built up over generations by previous incumbents. The likes of Lincoln, Churchill, Ghandi, and Mandela didn’t build a mountain of leadership respect for jokers like Trump to trash it in one term of office. 

They did the right thing for their people in their time. 

A flogged analogy 

Burgers will always be on the menu somewhere — they are delicious, easy to eat, cheap to make and go great with sides.

We will get leaders back soon enough.

The risk is that in a rush to calm our fears and avoid chaos we allow leadership that makes us all eat the same burger, every day for the rest of our lives.  


Hero image from photo by Ilya Mashkov on Unsplash

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