6 Ways to Manage a Weak But Devoted Leader

What if you have a leader who’s not great but you have to count on him anyway?

Several of my clients have faced this situation. Maybe the leader was successful at one point in time but then was promoted above his level of competence. Or else it felt like there was no other choice because nobody else seemed capable of carrying out the necessary work, and it seemed better to stick with someone loyal and dedicated than to have no leader at all. Or it could have been too difficult or too expensive to bring a new person in from the outside.

But now this weak leader has run out of confidence and excitement about the job—if he ever even had those things. And, depending on his character, he may turn mean or blame his subordinates for errors and problems that are his own fault—and create extra issues for you to deal with. 

What If There’s No Easy Way Out?

It’s easy to get mad at people like this and fire them. But that’s hard to do when they’re good, hardworking people who create harm despite their best efforts. Often these types hunker down, tending to the details they can manage and completely ignoring the big picture. You may appreciate their loyalty and efforts, wish they would do better, and feel like you can’t afford to do without them, but on the other hand, you could find yourself handling problems that they should have resolved while having to work around them. It’s exhausting.

This kind of situation can be particularly complicated if you, as the senior leader, do not have experience in the area that the weak leader is responsible for. You might prefer to give them some smaller job, where they won’t make such a mess, and hire someone else to do the job you wished they’d been doing. But until you have the funding necessary to bring someone else in, or the right candidate comes along, or you process your own loyalty and guilt about replacing this person, you’ll need to figure out how to work with what you’ve got. These six approaches can help.

How to Deal With Weak Leaders 

Stop pretending that this person is going to grow into the job by smartening or toughening up. Face the facts: They’re in the wrong job for the skills they really have. Instead of continuing to hope for improvement, focus on getting the best they can give, and determine what you need to do to supplement their efforts. 

Make plans based on the leader you’ve actually got. If you’re committed to trying to keep them, figure out how they will operate best even in the places they don’t operate well. How can you stabilize or structure their thinking and reactions and help them  make the best decisions possible or clue you in to decisions that you need to make? It’s better to invest more time in their decisions and processes up front rather than cleaning up their messes afterward. You may still be investing too much time, but at least you’ll get better outcomes. Emphasize how important it is for them to stay healthy and calm, because if they’re exhausted and distraught, their thinking and actions will be even worse.

Shift the weak leader’s focus and narrow their scope. Emphasize how important it is for them to do well with the things they do best. If that means acting more like an individual contributor or task-force member than explicitly as a leader, try to adjust their assignments and responsibilities in that direction. You may need to sequence their responsibilities and priorities, making plans together and checking in frequently to ensure they’re on track. 

Break the bottleneck. At the same time, you’ll have to make judgments about which of the weak leader’s prior assignments you should offload to others or even hold off on implementing for the time being. The crucial thing is to loosen the pinch points that have arisen over time because this leader didn’t—or couldn’t—make decisions when they needed to be made.

Require clarity. Be specific and concrete about every direction you give. Make sure these points are understood, and give feedback and guidance promptly. If this leader’s answers are unclear or confused, ask leading questions until you’re sure you understand. As much as you can, leave no room for error. The greater your clarity, the more possible you make it for them to be successful. Return to any unfinished business or declare it finished so that there’s no misunderstanding about your purpose or intent. When something is complete or improved, assign the next project or set of assignments to be undertaken. 

Bring in support. You may not have the bandwidth, specific experience, or patience to provide all the scaffolding this leader needs. But there might be another executive internally who could partner with them, or a coach or consultant who can provide hand-holding or development, depending on the situation. Sometimes it’s easier for you to see what needs to be done to direct this individual if you have someone else to do the heavy lifting.

Keep Growth as Your Target

If you can continue to grow the business around this person, there may still be a terrific role for them to play within the organization, and their loyalty and yours will both be rewarded. Or maybe you’ll be able to replace them with superior talent as the business grows, whether or not you keep a space for them. Either way, don’t let the business become smaller around them.

Onward and upward—

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