Transient Leaders: Invigorating or Toxic?

All too often business leaders move on long before the changes that they were employed to design and implement are complete. As a result the workforce can feel deserted and de-motivated – confused by an array of initiatives that appear disconnected and half-baked in the absence of their inventor. Can an organisation nowadays – faced with the inevitability of short-lived episodes of leadership – avoid the potential damage left behind, following the departure of the creator and champion of a partially executed new strategy?

Though toxic leadership is a prevalent feature of the modern corporate world, with the right safeguards in place, even transient leaders can be valuable catalysts for change. Appropriate time must be given to monitoring and challenging behaviours, strategic plans and success in implementing these. Then there is a chance that the workforce will be left invigorated to continue what was started, through to its planned successful conclusion, even without guidance from the helm. But the risks of a damaging outcome always remain high.

Length of leadership tenure

The length of time that a leader stays in a post is often significantly briefer than that of the majority of those impacted by his tenure. Thus a workforce can experience changes in strategic direction all too frequently, as those in charge come and go. As a consequence workers become increasingly indifferent to external messages and motivators. Then any attempt by a new appointee, to injection fresh ideas and revitalise employees, may well instead generate a lack-lustre response of ‘here we go again’.

So why do leadership episodes so often appear to end prematurely? It is far from unusual for those in high ranks to be replaced. So much is expected of a senior appointee – often in quite unrealistic timescales – that apparent failure to deliver is all too frequent. Whether fair or unfair, leaders can be sacrificed for lack of corporate achievement, even when aspirations pinned on them were too aggressive or required support not forthcoming. So-called ‘blame cultures’ still prevail in many organisations – and leaders are easy targets. Equally likely, a dismissed leader simply wasn’t up to the job – over selling himself, what he could accomplish, or both.

While a significant proportion of departing leaders are removed from their roles, a sizeable number leave voluntarily for new and better opportunities, ahead of their employer’s hopes and expectations. To attain high office, a person must inevitably be ambitious, and ambitions are usually closely coupled with self-interest. Hence many leaders, seeking a fast promotion path, can be inclined to regard each appointment as little more than a stepping stone to the next. When a man is determined to advance his career rapidly, he will possibly consider it wasteful to stay in a post any longer than the minimum time acceptable to the marketplace. In this case, waiting for a changed strategy to yield real results can be too slow.

Alternatively an ambitious leader, less confident of his own capabilities, may be fearful of facing the outcome of his own plans and style – or the lack of them. He could feel that a safer option is to depart while still reaping the benefits arising from a predecessor’s efforts. Such an action can leave an enterprise devoid of new ideas, at the very time when they are most needed, and an inadequate leader is unleashed into a fresh business, to potentially repeat his cycle of falsely laying claim to another’s achievements.

By contrast, the majority of a workforce exhibits a more stable approach to employment, remaining with the same organisation – indeed in the same role – for many years. As employees outside leadership positions have considerably reduced influence on a company’s results, the goals set for them are likely to be more negotiable and more realistic. Furthermore, the consequences of falling short of attaining these goals are less severe.

With greater job security, work ethos changes. General employees can afford to devote time to building relationships within work, to developing themselves and to waiting for outcomes. The typical personality of a non-leader plays its part in building commitment to an employer: lower ambition; stronger relationships; self-interest replaced by team bonds; a desire for greater work-life balance.

The disparity of leader and worker tenures can create problems for an establishment. Employees, experiencing a succession of leaders, become increasingly difficult to impress and turn into followers. How many launch events can any worker attend and still take seriously? How many reinventions? Stable, longer term workers learn to play a game of pretending to listen and be enthused, while continuing largely as usual.  Even if this ruse is seen through, the leader displeased, it matters little to the workforce when they know that leaders are transient, so a replacement will soon be passing through.

Beneficiary of strategy

Leadership episodes are often too brief for formulation and adoption of well developed new strategy, aimed at truly improving an organisation’s fortunes for a reasonable period of time. Thus existing plans and policies remain in place well past their required replacement date. Alternatively, rushed thinking is crystallised into initiatives too quickly, with damaging results. Worse still, a transient leader may deliberately set a corporate path to benefit himself, irrespective of the longer term outcome for others.

Two fundamental processes determine the success or failure of a firm’s head: development of a good strategy; effecting the changes necessary for delivery of that strategy. Both are difficult to achieve in the limited timescales available to the transient leader.

Setting targets for a business, based on external demands and pressures, isn’t enough. The skill of accomplished leaders is in getting under the skin of their organisations, understanding the subtlety of prevailing culture. How much can a workforce flex? What constitutes a realistic challenge, rather than an impossible dream? Faced with in depth analysis of culture and capability, before the merits of any proposal can be evaluated, many an ambitious individual will seek out simpler, less time consuming options. Short-term planning – indeed no new planning at all – is an easier choice. Such approaches extract from schemes already in place – leaving the pipeline of ideas and innovations to dry up – and milking customers for quick gain, irrespective of the consequences. An enterprise’s future is destabilised, while (at best) unsustainable efficiencies deliver cost savings, or healthy profits are returned, for a fleeting period. However, the architect of this damaging scenario – the transient leader – has nothing to fear: he associates with the brief spell of good profits and is long gone before the negative impacts of his inadequate, or nonexistent, strategy are realised.

But anyone too obviously revealing self-interest needs to beware. Workforces are canny, especially if dubious of changing faces at the top. When short term intent is visible, employees committed to sustained corporate success will disengage, ceasing to accept or respond to any leadership message. And dishonestly claiming another’s achievements as ones own rapidly de-motivates those who know the true circumstances, thus reducing their contribution to overall performance.

Success in effecting change

A key role for any leader is to successfully effect change. But change takes time – something that transient leaders don’t have. The more sellable a proposition and the less radical, the more consultative the approach involved in formulating direction, the less the resistance that is likely to be encountered. However, growing ever more cynical with each departing boss, staff will question new directives with increasing scepticism.

Any strategy, no matter how cleverly put together, is only as good as its implementation. Unless adopted, even first-rate ideas are worthless. Creative plans only become achievable if they are actively promoted – underpinning reasoning adequately explained and future benefits recognised. Persuading teams and individuals to alter course, and steer in a different direction, requires a great deal of energy and commitment on the part of the designer of the future enriching vision.

Too many leaders don’t appreciate their vital role in effecting change. They turn to others, such as their executive team or external consultants, to move the corporate direction. They step back, hoping to re-connect once the workforce is engaged and a difficult journey well underway. Reasons for lack of involvement vary, from an unwillingness to make such a high personal investment, to simply not recognising the strength of natural resistance and the determination needed to overcome this. For the transient leader, with insufficient time to gain the respect and cooperation of employees, and reluctant to expend volumes of energy on a company soon to be discarded, implementing change is often an insurmountable challenge.

Opposition to change runs through all business environments. Human nature is suspicious, so workers look with mistrust on corporate proposals. For ‘efficiencies’ they read ‘job cuts’, for ‘increased profits’ they read ‘long hours for less pay’. Traditional trade unions gained support on the primeval instinct of ‘if it’s good for management then it’s bad for workers’. Modern day leaders are faced with just the same prejudgements, though the expression of these is now more subtle. Barriers erected to hold back change are expressed as genuine concerns, being drawn to people’s attention to ensure they are dealt with. The short-term appointee has grave difficulty in distinguishing between real issues and blockers masquerading as issues. Time and effort are easily lost addressing the wrong areas, with the result that transformation progress is delayed.

Where change is successfully averted, the workforce quietly declares a victory when the leader trying to push forward initiatives departs the organisation. Though new policies or practices might have been to the overall advantage of both establishment and employee, remaining with the status quo is seen as a safer option by the majority, unless the visionary message was effectively communicated. Furthermore, a worrying mindset is reinforced: be sceptical, resist change and its driver will quit. So the next incumbent is faced with a greater struggle. The workforce’s belief grows ever stronger: that it can control the impact of high ranking executives. And while some degree of brake on the imposition of new ideas is healthy, to prevent leaders from leading is rarely to the long-term advantage of a business. Thus transient leadership can quickly reduce the ability to effect change.

Timing of departure

The timing of departure is crucial in determining lasting impact. If momentum for change is rolling, sufficient numbers of staff are bought-in and succession planning in place, then loss of a key influencing figure at the top of an organisation can be accommodated, without negative results. However, removal of the designer and instigator of a strategic plan can have dire consequences, if roll-out is patchy and resistance still strong.

Half implemented changes are potentially very dangerous to a business. Internal staff, partners, suppliers and customers can be confused – unclear what a company is offering and how it intends to achieve its purpose. Clarity of corporate vision is essential at all times. Without it, an organisation can tear itself apart, heading in two different directions at once. At best, multiple fronts weaken all flanks; at worst, opposing courses completely undermine each other. Avoidance of mixed objectives is much the safer option.

So every effort must be made to ensure that a leader departs his position either before starting to impose a revised strategy or after sufficient progress has been made, such that momentum will continue propelling through new schemes to a sound outcome. Related timescales vary, dependent on the breadth and depth of the changes involved. A brief stay in office – say under six months – is unlikely to cause anything more than a minor ripple of uncertainty and discontent. Beyond two years and even a major transformation of a business should be in a secure position, no longer dependent on its architect to energise and guide. It is the loss of leadership somewhere between these two points that has the capacity to be so disruptive, when patches of reform are too scattered to provide any comprehensive framework for modernisation.

Clearly directors need to be in control of when a key figure leaves, in order to maximise the chance of a favourable outcome. Large incentives may be required to retain an ambitious man beyond the date that he designated for his departure, but the price of any such reward is small compared with the damage that can be caused if a business is left muddled and disordered. Planned changes must be understood and perceived positively – stakeholders committed. Adoption of new practices and targets needs to be spreading. Only then can removal of a leader be accommodated. The one remaining concern is whether employees are bought into a figure-head, rather than his strategy; little can be done to relieve the inevitable de-motivation in such circumstances.

Any thoughts of dismissing a leader, for not delivering, obviously require very careful analysis, when consequences can be so long term and so dire. Limited achievements may well be better than a significant step back in morale, coupled with a more cynical workforce and general confusion both internally and externally.

Resultant outcome

However short a leader’s tenure with an organisation, if he leaves behind the rolling adoption of a well developed new strategy – understood and bought into by the employee community – his legacy will be good. But many factors can result in a much less favourable outcome: lack of, or the wrong, strategy; insufficient comprehension and buy-in to changes; lack of change momentum; dependence on a departing leader.  Whether through intent or by error – through action or the lack of it – transient leaders too often become toxic: leaving an enterprise in a worse state than they found it.

The length of time in a key role generally has more influence on outcome than any other single factor. Assessing a situation, developing the right forward path, engaging employees such that they metamorphose into followers – none of these are quick activities. Hastening any of these undertakings increases the likelihood of a toxic end result. Equally so does setting a short-term strategy, aimed at supporting the premature departure of a leader with self-interest in mind.

Alternatively, what if a transient leader chooses a course of inaction, perhaps conscious that his limited time in post will prohibit any real changes taking hold?  Opportunities for improvement are lost, allowing the status quo to continue. Corporate performance could hold up for some time; more likely, decline sets in – gradual or rapid – dependent on prevailing economic conditions. One thing is certain: ineffectual leadership never delivers an enriched business. And while one short period of poor leadership may do little more than stall progress, coping with a similar, subsequent episode will prove extremely difficult. Thus, what had appeared as a neutral situation, at the time of departure of a deficient figure, is quite capable of turning injurious in the longer term.

In certain circumstances, brief bouts of leadership can be stimulating – catalysing re-invention and injecting energy. Where sufficient willingness exists in a company to accept that stagnation has set in and fresh ideas are needed, parachuting in a dynamic figure with new thinking is often enough. Longer term commitment, establishing well developed strategy, driving through change – these are the proven components of successful leadership. But in the right environment, focusing a short-lived spotlight on an organisation and offering scattered nuggets of appropriate wisdom, based on experience, can be sufficient for a leader’s influence to be invigorating, his legacy beneficial. But the conditions required to produce this outcome are not common.

Minimising the damage

Toxic leaders, by definition, harm an organisation. The damage they cause may be long ranging. A workforce can grow sceptical of, or indifferent to, future leaders; the marketplace can lose confidence, which is difficult to rebuild.  From then on, leading and effecting change becomes increasingly problematic.

By definition, transient leaders carry a high risk of toxicity. Their shorter planned time in post drives their behaviours, usually to the detriment of the business that they head. A workforce’s response to such behaviours – to be indifferent to leadership, closing in and managing itself – further exacerbates the situation.

To minimise the damage, leaders at any level in a hierarchy need to be monitored and challenged to ensure that they develop strategy for the long term, not just the short term, and that the primary beneficiary of such strategy is the organisation, not the individual. Leaders must define the changes needed to align to a fresh direction, engaging and gaining buy-in from the workforce and the markets. Succession planning needs to be sufficiently mature, so that the departure of any one individual does not divert from the achievement of all the good things planned.

While hoping to operate outside a culture of transient leadership is false optimism, some degree of influence over the resultant outcome is possible. Early recognition and removal of potentially toxic or ineffectual leaders is vital. Likewise, supporting quality leaders – even when perceived to be transient – and carefully managing their departure, will help to ensure that the plans and inspiration developed remain firmly in place, long after the catalyst for invigoration has moved on.