Absentee Leadership

By Douglas Weinstein
Published on: April 6, 2018

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“You’re doing a great job!” Years ago, I remember my boss saying that to me. That was immediately after a presentation I made outlining the array of systemic problems I had inherited after I took over management of a company our parent group had just purchased. Sure, I was doing a great job, but the company was hemorrhaging money with no relief in sight and I didn’t have a single ‘digital’ engineer on board. I didn’t need a pat on the back as much as input on what help he was prepared to offer me in the way of engineering talent and the parent company’s new supply chain software and advice on how to deal with the sticky issue of firing our global distribution network and transitioning into a web-centric distribution model.

Research has existed for some time regarding the dark side of leadership – where egos and paranoia can create distance and erode trust among top managerial levels. What I was experiencing (and many of you have as well) was not dysfunctional leadership, it was worse than that – it was a complete absence of leadership. My boss was a leader in title only, psychologically absent from the day-to-day rigors that leaders are supposed to be navigating with their team members.

I often equate absentee leadership with someone who doesn’t have any skin in the game. Without a vested interest, how can you ever gain the trust and loyalty of your subordinates?

Here’s another way of looking at this – what’s worse than being abused by a boss? Being ignored.

My very first boss when I entered the junior ranks of management for JVC was a brutal, dictatorial, micro-managing fanatic (perhaps I embellish). I loved him! At least I knew where I stood at all times. If I had a problem, I could go to him, take a little abuse (hmmm, why don’t you already know this? Why did we bother to hire you in the first place?) and then sit and listen as he would explore our options and bring me along on how to develop a plan of action. I learned so much from him – he was my first and still to this day, best mentor.

And I’d take that style of leadership direction any day over the boss I had years later, who was little more than a cheerleader. He’d have posters put up around our offices with feel-good, team-building messages. But ask him to sit and review your P & L that you had to present to the board, and he’d always find some excuse to duck out. But not before he’d say, “You’re doing a great job!”

If you aspire to being a leader, you need to lead. That means mentoring and working with team members to help them understand how to address problems and how to fix things. It’s all about experience. A true leader shares their experience, helping others to develop skill sets that they in turn can pass on. Companies with the best leaders will always win. Those with absentee leaders seldom do.


Douglas Weinstein

Douglas Weinstein

Doug is the Editor and co-founder of the Technology Insider Group and Technology Designer Magazine. Previously, he was the Executive Director and co-founder of the Elf Foundation, a non-profit organization that created Room of Magic entertainment theaters in children's hospitals across North America.

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