Organizational dysfunction is the product of unquintessential leadershipOrganizational dysfunction surrounds us.

Corporations, companies, political bodies and groups, educational institutions, religious organizations, and social organizations all suffer, to one degree or another, from organizational dysfunction.

Why has organizational dysfunction become the norm instead of the exception to the rule?

The answers are multifold, but they begin – and end – with unquintessential leadership.

To really understand how organizational dysfunction occurs, we have to first understand how all organizations originate because it is often here where the root of unquintessential leadership is found.

All organizations have a common beginning: a single person who has some kind of talent or skill that people respond to and form around.

That person might be an aggressive salesperson with a unique idea or product who ruthlessly and single-mindedly bullies his way into a prominent place in the market in which he sells. A current example would be Steve Jobs of Apple.

Or that person might be a snake-charming salesman who plays deeply and effectively on innate human emotions like fear to promote and sell his product, while his only goal is to personally enrich himself. One current example would be Donald Trump, president of the United States.

Many religious organizations also have this type of origin, although the current adherents would deny this vigorously. It doesn’t make it any less true.

Or a person has talent with words, a great orator with a magnetic personality who says the right things in the right way, but who personally does not have the substance to back them up. Or a person looks good: handsome, pretty, easy on the eyes. People are drawn in by these superficial things and form around this and an organization is born.

That is the common beginning of all human organizations.

What is also common is that all of these people are unquintessential leaders.

They know nothing about leadership, so as organizations form around them, the organizations adapt to the model – often amoral, often divisive, often corrupt, often dishonest, and often chaotic – of that person.

The result is organizational dysfunction.

What does that look like in practical terms?

The first sign is that cliques, camps, and fiefdoms exist. The organization is riddled with groups of people who have their own agendas, their own quests for power, their own devotees.

Each of these groups fights for control and power over all the other groups, and if they don’t get what they want within the organization, they break off and form another organization, often using deception and deviousness to form a bigger coalition of people to follow them into the new organization.

Another sign of organizational dysfunction is an overwhelming resistance to change. Whether it’s process change, method change, or structural change, there is strong and organized resistance among the people in the organization and they will stop at nothing to prevent the change from occurring. 

This includes overt and covert sabotage of any effort to implement the change, steadfast lack of cooperation with those who are involved in making the change happen, and successfully eliminating the change by whatever means are necessary.

A third sign of organizational dysfunction is a lack of healthy organizational boundaries to ensure that everyone is treated fairly and according to the same standard.

We all see this every day. The rules apply to some people in the organization and not to others.

Some people in the organization are dead wood and should have been shuttled long ago, but mysteriously stay on, while other people in the organization who are actually productive suddenly get terminated without explanation.

People in leadership positions in the organization form BFF relationships with people who are not in leadership positions, and then share confidential information with them, collude with them, and form loyal alliances with them that often negatively impact other people in the organization and the organization itself.

So, as we strive to become quintessential leaders, we must look at ourselves and ask whether we are creating dysfunction in the organizational contexts in which we lead. 

If we are engaged in any of the activities above – creating cliques, camps, and fiefdoms and hungering for control and power, resisting positive change and using “hook-or-crook” methods to do so, and ignoring healthy organizational boundaries – then we are practicing unquintessential leadership.

We need to change. Immediately.

Because this is not who and where we should be. Any trust and goodwill we have developed along the way, we have destroyed by our participation in this.

The reality is that rebuilding trust and becoming trustworthy again after destroying trust and being untrustworthy may be impossible in the eyes of the people who have endured our lapse from quintessential leadership.

Trust and trustworthness are among the most precious things we can build and be, and once broken, are the hardest thing to put back together again in any kind of believable way.

Nonetheless, that is our responsibility as quintessential leaders to do. Because that’s our moral obligation to our teams. Whether they ever trust us fully again is not the point. Whether we become fully trustworthy again is.

How are we doing?



  1. iammarchhare says:

    If I may offer some counterbalance (and not really an antithesis, mind you), recently Anonymous posted that Donald Trump was a bully and Barak Obama was a “smooth-talking snake charmer”. Not sure about Jobs. He certainly had a reputation for being difficult, but I’ve never studied his life. I know he learned a lot while away at Next (perhaps even a little humility), which eventually became the basis for OS X.

    I would take it even farther than what you said about how many groups start, though. Yes, one person might have a talent, idea, and so on, but it eventually becomes a cult of personality. In religious circles, literally. In politics and even in business sometimes, in all practicality. I still question what Apple stands for without Jobs and what Microsoft stands for without Balmer. They seem to be aimlessly drifting in spite of the fact that they should have outgrown the cult of personality by now.

    Being resistant to huge changes is simply human. I’ve lived the other extreme. One place was so bad that I called it the “reorg of the month club”. That too is a sign of dysfunction. In fact, it is usually even more unhealthy than the lack of change. It is the result of attacking the symptoms rather than the causes, and it either ends in bankruptcy or being bought out. Being bought out might sound like a merciful end, but it often results in the laying off of people and the killing off of various products (and sometimes that is the goal of the acquisition to begin with).

    All organizations are dysfunctional because human beings are dysfunctional, and that won’t change in the near future. What leaders do is accomplish things, often in spite of great dysfunction.

    Sure, it is best to eliminate it where you can, but much depends upon the level of authority you have in the organization. Even formal authority (line or staff) can suffer if there isn’t also functional authority. I.E., the software development manager who does not know how to code is at a disadvantage without some other basis in authority. However, the software architect may have great sway in a development organization due to trust and expertise. However, the architect likely does not have the needed formal authority, either line or staff, to enact change to rid the organization of dysfunction. Perhaps he or she can in certain areas, but likely not the entire organization.

    And yet, a software archtitect might be able to get products out in spite of the surrrounding dysfunction.


  2. Martha Peeples says:

    This was excellent, and especially timely given the current administration. In any organization in which trust has been eroded (whether by infightng, inappropriate friendships leading to favoritism, or just plain poor leadership), staff will begin to lose morale and will start looking elsewhere. The organization will invariably weaken, and productivity will suffer. It’s best dealt with as soon as possible to avoid further damage. Thanks for posting this!


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