When Leaders Don't Lead


“The senior leaders have no vision,” he said glumly, as an explanation for his company’s problems.

I had heard this many times during my interviews of key employees at the company.  It was the end of my last interview.  I set my pen down and asked the question I had wondered about all day.   “So what are you going to do about it?”

“Me?” he asked. “What can I do? I’m not in charge. I’m just the manager of shipping.”

I studied him for a moment before I replied.  I could see he was frustrated and felt powerless.

“I know you think you can’t have a vision because the senior leaders don’t have one, but the truth is that senior leaders aren’t as ‘in charge’ as you think.  And within your own sphere of influence, you have more control than you think.”

Most people think of leadership as a position and therefore don’t see themselves as leaders.         . ~Stephen Covey

The assumption that change has to start at the top is wrong.

According to management guru Peter Senge, “The first step in building shared vision is to give up traditional notions that visions are always announced from ‘on high’ or come from an organization’s institutionalized planning process.”

Michael Beer of Harvard Business School agrees. “Managers don’t have to wait for senior management to start a process of organizational revitalization.”

While it’s true that eventually an initiative must be leader supported, it can begin anywhere in an organization. There is a lot managers can do without support from the top.

Take responsibility to provide leadership within your own sphere of influence.

Leadership is more than just good management practices.  In Full Steam Ahead, Ken Blanchard and I say, “Leadership is about going somewhere.”

Where do you want to go?  Where do you want to take your team? The best way to find out is to involve them.

Gather your team to discuss these questions:

  1. What is our purpose? What is the value of the service we provide? What business are we really in?
  2. What would we look like if we were magnificent at fulfilling our purpose?
  3. What would we accomplish? What results would we see?
  4. What would our relationships look like? With each other on the team and with other departments?  How would we work together? What would be happening and not be happening?

Dream together about what could be before you jump to specific action.  You will make better decisions about how to proceed because you will have access to the best thinking of everyone on your team.

As your sphere of influence begins to sparkle, you’ll notice the sparkle begin to spread.

If one flower can flourish in the midst of a bed of rocks, others can also.


22 comments to When Leaders Don’t Lead

  • Great article Jesse! By engaging others with clear purpose, there is a place for each of us to be influencers of change and vision within our own teams.

    • Good point, Sharon. We can make our work meaningful by connecting with its purpose no matter what our role is. When we believe vision or change has to be driven by someone else, we can spend a lot of time waiting and hoping…

  • Jesse thank you so much for the article. I have been educating my teams on the importance of Vision and Mission and for the past several months we have been talking about how leadership can be at any level in the organization. I agree that it doesn’t start at the top, as most movements don’t. Sometimes it is the teams that are closest to the customer that can identify what changes need to be made, and the leader in that group that can help recommend the strategy shift.

    I have forwarded your artilce to my teams to review.

    Thank you so much!

    • Absolutely, Apryl. The people closest to the customer are an invaluable resource as they have the most information about what’s needed. Thanks so much for adding to the discussion. I’d love to know your team’s reaction.

  • Great Post! I have to agree with Micah when you put Jesse, Ken, Peter in one post only magic can happen. Thanks for sharing.

  • Micah Yost

    Great post, Jesse. Although when you combine Jesse Lyn Stoner, Ken Blanchard, and Peter Senge all into one post it’s hard to get anything but great information!

    I love the idea Senge has about change coming from anywhere in the organization. I think the challenge for us as leaders is not just to realize that it can happen, but to encourage it. Getting to a comfortable place with your team where you can encourage and foster innovation and change that comes from within the organization can be difficult.

    Great follow up questions as well. I will be sharing with my team next Wednesday morning at coffee.

    • As always, Micah, it’s great to hear your thoughts. I agree with you that not only should leaders embrace change as it arises, they should encourage it. It’s easier when you know you share the same vision and values. The questions I listed will help a team identify these. I’ve used them for years and they are great food for thought. Would love to know how your team discussion goes.

  • Jack Hill

    Thank you – many good points for practice.

    I don’t know if it is my ADD but I often find a series of corporate style questions to produce answers with staff that are conditioned to say what you want to hear.

    As an administrator, I don’t know if people listen in their hearts to the top person or the lowest in the organization if a certain movement has no invested interest/belief in the cause!

    I hope you know that I enjoyed the blog – but your excellent thoughts have caused me (personally) to see that we need a voice that can be kind yet provoke solidarity through a dialectic of prophetic intellectual unease.

    • Hi Jack, Thank you for raising an important point – it’s not just “what” you ask, but also “how” you ask the questions. It’s important to engage in a way that opens up real dialogue, otherwise the conversation is pointless. Thanks for the reminder that the process is as important as the product.

  • This says it all for me, “the truth is that senior leaders aren’t as ‘in charge’ as you think”. Too often people find it way easier to point out external factors as the reason things are not as they should be. Leadership is not something that is out there, as individuals we are also playing a role in it. If I mind my own business and work within my circle of influence, there is a catalyst that we can all work with. Great post Jesse and I love how the picture gets to make sense at the end of the post!

  • Nicole

    I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on how this translates to small businesses. I’m talking about a really small business (team of about 3 people). How does one balance taking the lead and not getting taken advantage of by someone who refuses to take responsibility for their company?

    • Nicole, I would encourage you to facilitate the process of getting the three of you together to spend some time reflecting on and discussing these questions. You’re taking the lead in getting everyone together, but each person will need to take the lead in their own response. Once you are clearly aligned around your purpose, values and share a similar picture of what success looks like, you can begin to talk about what behaviors are needed to implement your shared vision. I’m curious what thoughts you or others who are reading this would add.

  • Meng

    we should prepare ourselves before we achieve the position all the time. From one hand, it will help us more competitive in current position. Also, it would give us more chance to win a higher position.

  • Jesse,
    Very often people are stuck with having the responsibility but not the authority for developing their positions. By taking leadership for what you CAN do, you’ll develop the authority. Great post.

    • Hi Sue, Thanks for tying in the issue of people who are stuck with responsibility but not authority – a common occurrence. You make an excellent point that by providing real leadership it is possible to develop authority even when it is not officially given. Thanks for adding to the discussion!

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  • Thanks for this posting. I find it reassuring that others find themselves in workplaces where those in positions of authority abdicate any semblance of leadership.

    While I agree with and have taught that any person can lead, actually leading can be unwanted and even sabotaged in dysfunctional organizations. It is morale busting for the organization when this occurs and most everyone suffers. Sometimes being a leader is simply hard.

    • I agree, Glen. Lots of people have lots of opinions about what leaders should do. But the bottom line is it IS hard. And in the end, the best we can do it recognize that, learn from our mistakes and keep trying to be the best we can be. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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