The 3 Types of Unleadable Organizations

We had such great expectations of the new CEO— the fit seemed perfect—all agreed the choice was right. But then matters suddenly turned sour. Deeply disappointed, we are not sure what to do next? Hang on a little longer to see if things change, cut our losses and start looking for new savior, appoint an interim and limp along leaning heavily on the talents of others, or hire a few consultants to tell us what went wrong and what mistakes were made?

Often even the departing CEOs are not sure what went south. Some had misgivings but did not credit the speed of the disconnect. In organizations where there is constant turnover at the top, or where CEO tenure tends to be shorter by industry standards, there is the reluctant belief that some companies are leader resistant— inimical to executive success.

But disturbingly what that may mean is that every CEO failure may be a double failure: his and his organization’s. Collusion stalks the landscape. There are companies, situations, states, countries who for all their urgent calls for intervention are averse to leadership—secretly conspire in its demise.

But if this is true then it is one of the best kept secrets around. All welcome and wish new CEOs well. Honeymoons go on for weeks. If leadership undermining is involved it is behind the scenes. It is not immediately apparent. Nor is it crude or direct. It is neither benevolent nor malevolent. Rather a storm is brewing—a groundswell is gathering—it is something almost anarchistic and unorganized. But it persists nevertheless. One waits to see if it is ideological or fault finding, structured or vague. What finally emerges is leaders are not hated; worse they are regarded as superfluous.

But how did that come to be? Surely no one would question the value of a singular strong voice and that a sense of direction is needed. Besides, most companies are more supportive than undermining of leadership indispensability. So the question occurs what sets the few apart—what are some of the tell tale signs of companies being leadership resistant and why? Three minimally appear:

1) The Executive Team

If the vice presidents and their direct reports have been around a long time and their network roots run deep and long, new CEOs are bothersome, distracting, sometimes even threatening. They fail to appreciate that this is already a well oiled machine; that every thing is under control; that every contingency has been anticipated and covered. If the CEO wants to micro manage, the access of the executive team to the chair of the Board is as good as his. And if push come to shove it may be easier to replace a CEO than an entire executive team.

2) Mission and Vision Statements

If those statements are old and weary or no one remembers what they say, new CEOs often take it as their cause cêlébre. It is understandable. They are supposed to be as big and purposeful as the leader. But alas undertaking present and future fit has generally been unnerving and contentious. And often rather than unifying it has exposed more tensions than it has resolved. And as the CEO emerges with visionary egg all over is face, his popularity numbers decline. In short this is a big picture failure he cannot afford and may not survive.

3) Teams Rule

Teams now command. They are self starting, complete unto them selves, absorbed and integrated seamlessly, dominated by middle level team leaders, and are generally regarded as being more responsible for company success than CEO leadership. In other words, there is no company wide cross divisional operation that is more independent and needs less CEO intervention and nurturing than teaming.

What should become clear by now is that failure by collusion is not vindictive or planned. It is a preexisting condition. Some deep resentments may have been built up over time about CEO excesses and they have resulted in loss of trust—or worse to the conclusion that the necessary evil of a CEO may be more evil than necessary. In short, leadership resistance is based on the perception that the CEO is dispensable.

Unexpectedly the evaluation of executive failure, may always have to be doubled, regarded as collusionary, involving a secret sharer; and that the dynamics of the interplay pits the position of CEO often against his harshest critics who are not only indifferent to his success and continuity, but also are not persuaded that he is critical to company success. From that point it is only a short step to his being let go and a leaderless company being secretly proud of its unled nature.