Leadership Void

When you’re called to lead, are you ready?

I’m not talking about leading people through a project, transition, or crisis. That’s leadership with a capital “L”, the type we love to debate on this blog and yes, it’s hugely important.

There are other ways to lead too— less obvious, perhaps, but no less influential. These are the lowercase leadership opportunities . . . those that present themselves in every day moments, calling your character into play. When these opportunities occur you have a fraction of a second to decide: do I step in and fill the leadership void? Hesitate, and the moment is gone. Take action, and you’ve made a difference.

I think back to a time many years ago when faced with such an opportunity. I was a newly hired training professional at a large corporation and had been named to a cross-functional team that met weekly for status updates.

One week, the designated team leader, Sharon, was not at the meeting. In her absence, meeting leadership fell to “Jerry”, a genial and well-liked member of the team. As we proceeded through the meeting, we came to a point at which we needed to draw on the expertise of an engineer, but none were at the meeting.

Jerry piped up with, “Well, we could ask George to weigh in on the issue . . .” He let the sentence dangle, waiting to see if anyone would take the bait.

Oh, he wouldn’t dare go there, would he? I thought.

Regrettably, someone bit. “You mean, George who has the [model name of sports car]?” another team member piped up.

Crud, I moaned silently, we are going there.

Jerry-the-Supposed-Leader followed up with, “That’s quite a car, isn’t it? It’s so sleek and well . . . tiny,” he offered, his sentence dripping with subtext.

Here’s what Jerry wasn’t saying (out loud, at least): “George” was on the plump side and drove a small two door bright-yellow sports car. Apparently, Jerry found this image humorous and decided to have some fun at George’s expense.

Of course, this line of discussion had absolutely nothing to do with the meeting topic and it was decidedly mean-spirited to boot. I thought Jerry would immediately bring the meeting back on track, but he didn’t. Instead, he and a few others around the conference table continued in the same vein, with people inferring about the difficulty of George getting in and out of his “banana mobile”.

Meanwhile, I was mentally casting about for a way to put a stop to this conversation. Clearly, the meeting leader wasn’t going to end it and nobody else seemed inclined to do so either.

Speaking up was risky for me. Not only was I at the very bottom of this meeting’s food chain as newly hired employee, I had also been previously counseled to “lighten up” in my commentary, having been seen as too straight-laced for the company’s free-wheeling culture. Knowing that my comments would only further my reputation as a spoil-sport, I decided to speak up anyway.

Taking a deep breath, I said, “You know, I can’t help but wonder that if George were here in this meeting . . . would we be having this conversation?” I made eye contact with everyone seated around the conference table.

Jerry had the good grace to look chagrined. “No, probably not”, he conceded.

“So,” I continued, “Who is the best person to contact George to get those engineering specs?”  And with that, the meeting was back on track.

It’s disappointing when a leader fails us. It’s also an opportunity— for someone else to step up and make things right. Just because the designated leader has fallen short doesn’t mean the entire group need follow suit. Sometimes all it takes is someone brave enough to speak up and speak out to set things back on the right path.

To be a leader it’s not enough to just know the difference between right and wrong. You have to forge the courage to call out the wrongdoing, even when it means potential harm to one’s reputation. I believe everyone at that conference table knew deep down that poking fun at an absent co-worker wasn’t right. Several of us stayed silent and refused to partake in the inappropriate commentary. But silence wasn’t sufficient to stop the bad behavior; this situation required speaking up. Leadership requires action, especially when a moral wrong is occurring. On that day, in that conference room, I was ready and stepped in to fill the leadership void.

Questions for discussion:

What are your guiding principles that help you decide when it’s time to step in and fill leadership void?

Have you ever found yourself in a similar situation? How did you handle a leader who had a momentary lapse of leadership?