Are you a leadership-thirsty vampire?

Summary: Perceived lack of leadership in the team might be a symptom of a higher-level manager sucking it out of it.

Over the course of my consulting career I had the opportunity to work with numerous types of managers / leaders. I have seen management styles in action, I have been managed in different ways and I myself led my projects in various ways. This post is about a management style that I will call a leadership-thirsty vampire (LTV).

This is a story from some time ago. I was a part of the team on a consulting engagement as a ‘doer’, not in a management position. Our project manager was a quiet, yet very knowledgeable and experienced guy who had many of these kinds of engagements under his belt. Above our project manager was a director who was an expert in the subject matter of that engagement, therefore was crucial to making it work from a content point of view.

In my opinion, most of us have at least a little bit of a leadership spark in us, however small it actually is. Therefore wherever there’s a leadership void in the team, in my experience it is almost always organically filled by one team member stepping up or the management tasks being divided between different team members with the project manager ultimately being the one accountable for the results.

This consulting engagement was different, though. As mentioned, our project manager was not a loud extrovert and therefore the director felt that he needed to step in to give the project the leadership it required. Thinking back to that situation, it dawned on me – my project manager’s perceived lack of leadership was a symptom, not the cause. It was a symptom of the leadership-thirsty vampire management style exercised – subconsciously or on purpose – by the director.

A leadership-thirsty vampire sucks the leadership out of the project manager and ultimately out of the team, as his / her thirst is insatiable. He / she will grab – again, rather subconsciously, but could also be on purpose – all of the responsibility and accountability off the team and concentrate it in his / her own hands. It can be a result of a deep conviction that the project manager and the team aren’t skilled enough to execute the engagement / task as planned and as the client requested it, therefore the only viable answer in LTV’s head is to do almost everything themselves. Or it can just be a way of managing that has become a habit of theirs and their default action.

The ironic thing about the LTV’s behaviour is that he / she perceives it as helping, without realising the effect it has on the project manager / team. This way of managing, which is often combined with attempts at micromanaging and inevitably with fear of delegation of tasks (because these won’t be done to the LTV’s standard, therefore he / she must complete them themselves), has a multidimensional negative fallout:

  • The project manager doesn’t feel like this is his project and gives up leadership, therefore joining the vicious circle – in LTV’s eyes this behaviour will only strengthen their belief that they need to step in and they’ll suck out the leadership further and further
  • The team becomes ‘scared’ of contacting the outside world without the nod from the LTV, as everything needs to go through him / her
  • Proactive ideas or attempts at shaping the project plan are deemed to be ignored if they do not correspond with the LTV’s vision; he / she will shoot them down in the nicest of ways, but that will still discourage any future attempts at proactivity from the team, turning their approach into “what’s the point, he / she will change it anyway, we might as well just wait for him / her to tell us what to do and how to do it and then amend it anyway”
  • No succession planning takes place as a result of the above points, as no one feels up to the task of managing as the LTV sucked all of the leadership out of the team and becomes irreplaceable; decision paralysis often ensues, with the LTV being the only one with power to make the final call
  • Ultimately, such a way of working must take its toll on the LTV’s health. Staying up late to finish off the team’s work in the smallest of details, investing energy into leading the team as no one else is willing to do it (symptom!), becoming the client’s only trusted advisor and relationship manager – all those things could have been delegated through empowering of the team, yet the LTV seems unable to let go & trust (vicious circle)

In Charles Handy’s categorisation of cultures, the LTV’s work organisation is a classic power culture, with all of it concentrated in their hands. The ironic thing is that the LTV quite often will feel like they’re a great collaborator and delegator – he / she will not see that e.g. during a brainstorming session that they facilitate (obviously) only his / her ideas are being taken forward or that the ‘delegation’ (=ultimately doing the task for the team, as the instructions weren’t clear and it didn’t get completed as per LTV’s vision) fuels the ‘learned helplessness’ of this situation and doesn’t allow the vicious circle to break.

Therefore my professional suggestion is following:

If you’re a manager, ask yourself these questions:

  • Am I supporting my project manager / team leader in becoming a better manager or am I actively replacing them?
  • Do I allow my people to take control or do I feel like I need to steer all the time?
  • Am I really listening to the team’s suggestions and react / implement them?
  • When the tasks are not completed as per my expectations, is it because my instructions weren’t clear? Do I correct those tasks myself or explain the shortcomings to the team and let them improve?
  • Do I get annoyed if the team distributes any material without my final approval?
  • Do I feel comfortable with delegating tasks, letting the team get on with it and following up at the right moments to ensure being on track?
  • If I imagine me not being there, do I think that the team is doing ok or do I become anxious that they will ruin the assignment?
  • Do I let my team members make mistakes and therefore gain experience, helping them learn from them or do I exercise meticulous handholding which eliminates any possibility of mistake, but also any trace of engagement / autonomy / energy from the team?

And if you’re a project manager / team member that has to work with the LTV, I recommend taking them to one side and having a frank conversation. Often they will not have been sucking the leadership out on purpose and showing them the results of their way of management can be enlightening to them. If they don’t want to listen… well, then I think you’ve got two choices – either you change the manager or you don’t stop being proactive, engaging, trying to exert leadership. Bottom line is that although it is very easy to do so, you shouldn’t become discouraged, because otherwise along with the leadership, the LTV will suck your motivation and sense of purpose out of you if you allow them.

Let me know if you have worked with an LTV and how you got along!

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