I’ve been working with a senior leadership team of late that has, shall we say, quite a forceful executive at its head. Having been in the role just over 18 months, he’s been instrumental in reshaping the direction of the organisation and lifting its performance. Things are tracking well, morale is lifting across the board, and the future looks bright.

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Until, of course, the shit hits the fan.

Recently, the team held an offsite meeting for a day to discuss critical issues and make decisions about their priorities over the coming months and years. It was all progressing smoothly until said executive took a phone call which saw him leave the room for 30 minutes.

What unfolded during that time was interesting. Can you guess what happened?

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Yep. The group went into paralysis. No-one around the table wanted to progress the discussion without their leader in the room. The general sentiment was “we can’t do anything else until he’s back.” So, people went to their phones and checked emails, or had off-topic sideline discussions.

I pointed out what I was noticing in the room. I asked, “What could leadership look like when he’s not here?” The group struggled to provide a coherent answer. Then someone pointed out that their leader was going on three weeks’ leave in a month’s time. Hmm. Opportunity or threat?

I see this dynamic at play time and time again. Deep down, we all seek a leader to provide stability and make our decisions for us. To take the blame when things go wrong. To save us from having to expose ourselves to risk. Walt Whitman wrote his poem ‘O Captain My Captain!’ after the death of Abraham Lincoln, lamenting the loss of stability and direction that his president had provided him and the nation during deeply troubled times. When the single point of leadership is lost, we are all lost. A vacuum remains.

Too much of a good thing can make us lazy. We can forget that we too must play a part in the dynamic of making something successful or failing. We can hand over leadership responsibility to another, and we wait to be told what to do.

In a group, a leadership vacuum can represent an opportunity for someone else to step in. And, more powerfully, it’s an opportunity to reshape the group’s definition of leadership. What does individual leadership responsibility look like when we are together? How will we work collectively work to provide the leadership that’s needed? It’s not easy. It’s a more sophisticated way of operating that future-proofs the organisation from single points of failure.

It asks you, and your colleagues, to speak up and speak out. It asks you to reach out and inquire into others’ views. It asks you to invite potential messiness, confusion and disagreement where once there was polite silence and passive agreement. Don’t just move on to the next item. Go beyond the threshold. Get deep into the conversation. Make it rich, alive.

Here are some tips for making that happen:

Will this group go that way? That remains to be seen. I really hope so.

The more important questions are: where are you allowing a leadership vacuum to be?And what will you do about that?

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