I have worked with one person who was a quintessential leader. The next post will be about that person and how grateful I am that our paths intersected early in my career, because I learned a lot from him not only about what quintessential leadership looks like in practice, but also about having the highest standards of integrity and practicing what a person says he or she believes.

The rest of the people in leadership positions throughout my career so far have been managers (and not stellar in even that arena) and non-quintessential leaders. Some were decent people personally, but had no leadership skills. Others were not decent people personally and also had no leadership skills. As I’ve sorted through the names, faces, and experiences, contrasting and comparing them all, one person leads the way in non-quintessential leadership and I will point out the areas in which this became glaringly obvious.

You may recognize these characteristics in someone you know and/or have worked with. And the more of these symptoms that are evident, the more toxic the work environment and the lower the morale will be. If you are experiencing burn-out and all that encompasses, then you probably have a non-quintessential leader like this.

He had a reputation when I got hired and I quickly heard that he was a “yes” man, a suck-up to those above him – and a tyrant to those who worked for him, and wishy-washy, going with whatever the prevailing winds moved the executive leadership of the organization, which left his teams in constant disarray.

Ironically, he did not want me to be hired because he thought I was too assertive and too committed to changing things drastically. In the conservative mindset of the organization, change was viewed with suspicion and resistance, and if anything did actually change (very few of the fundamental changes that needed to be made to become efficient, effective, and productive were made while I was there or have been made since), it was only after going through layers and layers of committees, organizational red tape, and many hoops held up by the executive staff to jump there. Change – or the attempt to change – was thoroughly exhausting and was mostly an exercise in futility.

He was ignored (and I didn’t find this out until later, but I realistically know that it was only a small contributor to the tenor of the relationship he and I had, because I know I shared the same kind of relationship with him in general that all his other team leaders did) and the CTO, who liked me personally and professionally and wanted someone who would shake things up in a positive and productive way, made the offer of employment to me, which I accepted.

As I began the job and was observing, evaluating, and listening to my team members and my peers, I also observed, evaluated, and listened to those who were responsible for overseeing all of us. The first thing I noticed about this man was that he had gotten where he was not because he was qualified for a leadership position, but because he was skilled in playing the elaborate political games this organization reeked with. He ingratiated himself with the people who wielded power in their respective business units and who had the unqualified support of the CEO.

They were like gods to him and he bowed at their altars regularly, slavishly acquiescing to their every whim and demand, whether it made sense or not, was reasonable or not, was right or not, to the exclusion of the majority of the organization’s other employees.

In disputes in which they leveled charges against his employees, they were always true and right and his employees were always dishonest and wrong. He never checked facts and never investigated a situation before drawing a conclusion. He simply took their word at face value and supported them. Not once in all the time I was there did I ever see him support or go to bat for one of his employees.  Ever.

For context, it is important to note that the people he cowtowed to and curried favor with were an ivory-tower group of people who were prima donnas and consistently made mountains out of mole hills, if there was an issue, and if there was not an issue, but they decided a person wasn’t paying them enough attention or being subservient enough, they fabricated issues.

And this group of people was who he always threw his support behind. He was more interested in himself – and his career, because he was a lifer at this organization – than he ever was with his teams. And that was reinforced time and again.

His climb up the ladder was the result of his own self-centeredness and kissing up to the right people. He did not have any leadership skills and was not even that knowledgeable about the technical areas he was responsible for. But he had teams that made him look good and he never had any problem taking all the credit himself and promoting himself when things went right.

Equally, when things went wrong – both because of poor leadership on his part and because he constantly agreed to things that either couldn’t be done the way he agreed to them or couldn’t be done in the unrealistic timeframes he agreed to or both – he never took any responsibility, instead placing all the blame and castigation – he was quite adept at that – on his teams.

He was neither respected nor liked by any of us. But we were stuck with him, so we did our best to do our jobs in spite of him. It was never easy. The turnover rate of his teams was (and still is) the highest in the organization and yet no one ever questioned it nor did anything to address it. Those who’ve endured had other personal reasons for staying, but it has not been without a lot of grief and heartache and ulcers along the way.

Toward the end of my tenure there – when he’d crossed a major line by calling me into a “meeting,” closing the door, and proceeding to yell and scream at me, getting worked up into a full rage which had him standing banging on his desk and threatening me (I was alarmed enough for my physical safety that I was trying to assess how close I was to the door and whether I could get out fast enough if he came after me), and the administrative assistants sitting outside the door were “frightened” (I heard this after the fact) for me and went to alert the CTO, who shrugged and did nothing – I spelled it out to him (I refused to meet with him alone anymore after this meeting, and after three months, he couldn’t remember what he did and after I told him, could not understand why I was so upset about it).

Prior to my last annual performance review there, I wrote a document and gave it to him and told him we would not do my performance review until he had read it. Performance reviews with him were a nightmare. They lasted a full day and consisted of him haranguing all of us over our deficits. None of us ever got more than a cumulative “meets expectations,” and, of course, raises were tied to that, so none of us ever got much, if any, of a raise. Early on, after talking with one of my peers who also became a good friend (we were complete opposites in temperament and approaches, but together we made a very successful team), I discovered that our director blasted me for not doing more of what he criticized my peer for doing and he blasted my peer for not doing more of what he criticized me for doing. That’s an impossible situation to try to navigate.

He kept delaying my last performance review and one day I got a call from the CTO saying he wanted to meet with me. In the meeting, he said that my director had tried to read my paper and just couldn’t get through it. The CTO said it was hard for him to get through it, not because it wasn’t well-written, but because it presented a lot of information in a “dense,” high-level way that, although it was completely understandable, required a higher level of intelligence and capability than this director had. I then aired my professional grievances against him and the CTO’s response was disappointing. He said that this director had a “limited range of responses” and it was my responsibility to just deal with it.

By then, I was seriously pursuing other career opportunities, so I just walked out and finally did the performance review, which netted me the usual “meets expectations.”

When I submitted my “burn-no-bridges” resignation letter to this director, he was genuinely surprised. He was so enmeshed in the organizational mindset of “you stay here until you die or are fired (which rarely happened)” that he could not wrap his brain around the fact that someone would actually leave by choice. He did not ask me why I was leaving, nor did he express any regret (and although 200 or so people showed up at my going-away party, he did not). My last action of significance, though, was making sure that the person I had groomed to replace me and who I knew would stand toe-to-toe with him just like I did in support of my team members (she was more charming and proficient verbally than I was and, amazingly, he liked her better than most) got my position. I left, knowing that although there was no leadership at the top, that my team members had a leader who was poised to become a quintessential leader.

Comments
  1. […] my earlier post, The Most Unquintessential Leader in My Experience, I reviewed in summary form, the characteristics that made this person the antithesis of a […]

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