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Senior Correspondent

Signs of the Spineless Leader

In the CEO Afterlife

Signs of the Spineless Leader

Do you have to meet a spineless leader to know one? Not necessarily. Recently, I unveiled a spineless leader upon learning how he handled a single set of circumstances — the orchestrating of an unfair and unjust hiring practice that covertly circumvented the promotion of the best candidate. I had adequate information to visualize the yellow stripe illuminating from the back of his neck to the base of his spine. 

For sure, the details of this tragic case would make for juicy storytelling. But I’ll not go there because the story is a little too close to home. So I’ll use this example as a catalyst to share five signs of a spineless leader. If you see any of these within the leadership of your organization, beware. Think seriously about moving on. 

1. Spineless leaders refuse to hire people better than themselves. They feel threatened that star performers will show them for who they really are. Their practices weaken and demotivate. Ultimately this weakens the organization’s product or service.

2. They hide behind, and manipulate, self-appointed committees to get what they want. This evades the ramifications of the pre-determined decision by affording an escape hatch for the responsibility of the decision.

3. The decisions they do make seldom put stakeholders first. These stakeholders can be customers (a business leader), constituents (a politician), or students (a school administrator).

4. They dodge the truth and avoid the tough decisions by asking questions – superficially seeking the opinions of subordinates. Too many “What do you think?” questions are nothing more than avoidance.

5. They answer questions by beginning their response with, “That’s a good question.” There is nothing wrong with buying time to organize one’s thoughts. But when every response begins in the same patronizing way, the spineless leader has shown his stripe.

Spineless leaders are accidental leaders, not intentional ones. And everyone knows it. The obvious question is, “How do these lily-livers become the boss in the first place?” While one can attribute their rise to political shrewdness, the frightening answer is that someone bought the “smoke and mirrors” and promoted them into a leadership position.

Spineless leaders hire spineless leaders and create a slithering chain of command that is difficult to break. Sadly, in the case “close to home,” that person remains at the top of the heap.

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