Editor's Note: This article first appeared on HBR.org and was curated by Closer Spot. Please subscribe to get actionable news and advice delivered to your inbox each week.
A young friend recently remarked that the worst boss he ever had would provide him with feedback that always consisted of “You’re doing a great job.” But they both knew it wasn’t true — the organization was in disarray, turnover was excessive, and customers were not happy. My friend was giving it his all, but he needed more support and better feedback than he received. He wanted a leader who would be around when he needed them, and who would give him substantive advice, not platitudes. As a measure of his frustration, he said, “I would rather have had a boss who yelled at me or made unrealistic demands than this one, who provided empty praise.”
Researchers have studied managerial derailment — or the dark side of leadership — for many years. The key derailment characteristics of bad managers are well documented and fall into three broad behavioral categories: (1) “moving away behaviors,” which create distance from others through hyper-emotionality, diminished communication, and skepticism that erodes trust; (2) “moving against behaviors,” which overpower and manipulate people while aggrandizing the self; and (3) “moving toward behaviors,” which include being ingratiating, overly conforming, and reluctant to take chances or stand up for one’s team. The popular media is full of examples of bad leaders in government, academia, and business with these characteristics. However, my friend was describing something arguably worse than an incompetent boss. His manager was not overtly misbehaving, nor was he a ranting, narcissistic sociopath. Rather, his boss was a leader in title only — his role was leadership, but he provided none. My friend was experiencing absentee leadership, and unfortunately, he is not alone. Absentee leadership rarely comes up in today’s leadership or business literature, but research shows that it is the most common form of incompetent leadership.
Absentee leaders are people in leadership roles who are psychologically absent from them. They were promoted into management, and enjoy the privileges and rewards of a leadership role, but avoid meaningful involvement with their teams. Absentee leadership resembles the concept of rent-seeking in economics — taking value out of an organization without putting value in. As such, they represent a special case of laissez-faire leadership, but one that is distinguished by its destructiveness.
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