Leading from the Middle of an Indifferent Leadership Team

When a newly hired VP called me the other day, expressing frustration with her indecisive and apathetic colleagues, my unspoken response was: “They’re not even strong enough to be a Team of Rivals.”

When a leadership group appears weak, confused, or in disarray, employees at all levels lose their drive and their heart. That’s a recipe for stasis and failure throughout the business.

The VP’s question: How could she encourage her peers to come together and take steps to move the business forward? Most of them recognized that something wasn’t working, but they seemed to lack the knowledge, skill, or gumption to do anything about it.

Free Yourself from the Trap

Here’s what I told the activist VP: If you’re knocking at the front door, looking for leadership, and no one answers, find an open window or a back gate. Don’t just keep knocking: The folks inside will get annoyed, shut down, or act out — possibly creating negative conflicts that spread through the troops.

managing-indifferent-leadershipWhen you keep expressing your real needs to people who don’t understand or can’t help, it’s as if you’re hollering at them in a foreign language they don’t understand. They hear your volume and recognize that you’re worked up, but they have no capacity to change the situation. They wonder, “Why are you yelling at us?” They may even perceive you as the source of the problem.

So, if no senior person takes the lead, what can you do? It’s possible to initiate action from the middle, not by working directly on others but by working on yourself. Even if your example doesn’t prompt others to act, it may help you advance your career — either where you are, or in a more progressive organization.

Work on Your Street CRED

Leading from within is a tall order. It requires functional skill, organizational savvy, and enough charisma to make people take notice — the equivalent of street CRED:

  • Commitment to the organization’s big goals — despite any day-to-day annoyances — talking them up and taking steps to reach them from whatever chair you sit in
  • Resilience to recover quickly when things are difficult, and get back on track when things go wrong
  • Expertise that comes from building up your own knowledge and skills so you’re fully capable of handling your current role proficiently and adding value to other roles and projects
  • Drive to stay focused and apply yourself, instead of holding back because of your own frustration

Making Your Own Action Plan

Ask yourself:

  • How can I give support to frightened colleagues and energy to the crushed ones?
  • How can I support even one person on the dysfunctional team through optimism, pragmatism, or outright intervention?
  • How can I provide a helping hand or safety net, but not a shoulder to cry on?

Usually you can find an ally who only needs a little boost to feel and do better. If you show them there are real choices, you may be able to galvanize them again.

To motivate the group effectively, keep your eye on the future without bemoaning the past. Instead of asking “Why haven’t we…?” or “Why didn’t we…?” concentrate on “What if we could…?” and “How could we…?”

Too Much to Ask?

Is this a lot to take on? Yes! But it’s good practice. Sometimes, it’s just what you have to do as a leader. And it will save you from falling into the abyss that your colleagues have learned to live in.

Onward and upward,


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