There is a growing convention that ‘good’ leaders are those who adopt a more ‘hands-off’ and passive approach, characterised by a lack of intervention, control, or supervision. Passive leadership lies at the opposite end of the spectrum occupied by authoritarian, alpha male, command and control leaders.
At first glance the passive leader looks like a great person to work for, giving those they lead more autonomy, power and influence. Who wouldn’t want to work for someone who let you make all the decisions for yourself?
However – things aren’t quite as simple as they might appear – particularly if the leader remains at the extreme end of the passive – proactive spectrum.
There appear to be four reasons why a leader might tend towards Passive Leadership:
1. Those leaders who are lost in the functional detail of their own role to the extent that they ignore everything that goes on around them;
2. Those leaders who have an extreme aversion to being perceived to be authoritarian or micromanagers;
3. Those leaders who believe that performance is a personal issue and that it’s up to individuals to set their own standards, behaviour’s and attitudes;
4. Those leaders who are philosophically committed to empowering others, providing autonomy and establishing democratic and egalitarian cultures;
Repeated studies into Passive Leadership have shown that far from creating the kind of positive cultures we might expect is can lead to a range of negative outcomes that run counter to the leader’s intention:
Bullying: Passive Leadership can generate bullying and aggressive behaviour that flourishes in an environment where such behaviour is ignored or overlooked.
Such outcomes are consequences of the Passive Leader’s unwillingness to identify, communicate or enforce explicit standards of behaviour – leaving people to work out these standards for themselves.
Poor productivity: The Passive Leader typically pays little attention to productivity and the completion of tasks, seeing both of these to be the personal responsibility of the individual.
Such leadership behaviour can fracture any sense of common purpose in the organisation, leading to demotivation, frustration and low self-esteem.
Lack of vision and sense of purpose: This problem is aggravated when the Passive Leader fails to offer any definitive personal vision for the future, preferring instead to solely delegate the generation of that vision to others in the organisation.
This lack of proactivity can frequently lead to interminable meetings, proliferation of committees and groups, and an absence of decisive direction – ultimately leaving people confused and uncertain.
Procrastination: When it comes to making difficult decisions the Passive Leader typically adopts a ‘wait and see’ approach characterised by delaying or avoiding decisions. Such behaviour leads people to take things into their own hands, which, in turn, can lead to increased incivility and volatility in the workplace.
Reactive leadership: As one might expect, situations inevitably deteriorate to the point where the Passive Leader has to take ‘reactive’ action – long after an successful solution could have been implemented.
Status Quo Bias: Such is the Passive Leader’s unwillingness to take decisive action that it leads them to prefer the status quo and avoid innovation and change leaving the long-term survival of the organisation at risk.
As is ever the case, leadership requires the leader to make wise judgements about which behaviours they need to manifest at particular times and in particular contexts.
However, the leader who is determined to never explore other reaches of the ‘passive – proactive spectrum’ of leadership really does run the risk of ending up leading a team of people who lack any sense of purpose or direction; who demonstrate incivility towards each other; who don’t have a clear idea about what good performance looks like; and, who work in an environment where they live at the whim of a leader who reacts to situations in an unpredictable and erratic manner.
If I have observed any leadership trend in 2017 it has been to see more and more leaders being trapped by the expectation that they should only adopt the traits of Passive Leadership – yet when such a leader has given themselves permission to shift into more proactive behaviours the results have been quite remarkable.