Les McKeown's Predictable Success Blog

  • August 19, 2011
  • minute read

The alienated leader 

This is the final post in this week’s series, where we’re examining the implications of this:

How it's going to be
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(You can read more about where this graph comes from in the earlier posts in this series, here, here, here and here)

This changed scenario – from a slow recovery in 2011 to an even slower one extending into 2014 or so, has wrought changes in the nature of sustainable leadership that many leaders feel uncomfortable with, and which cause a sense of alienation – a feeling that this isn’t what they signed up for.

Here are the five main culprits:

The fragmentation of the synchronous team.
Most leaders are so because they value the act of leading (duh). Yet it is increasingly harder to get the endorphin release that comes from the act of leading when teams are scattered, asynchronous and subject to high turnover.

The loss of ‘loyalty premium’.
Many leaders – especially Visionaries highly value building a loyal team around them. Tough times dilute the leader’s ability to achieve this, both through enforced turnover (losing good people in workforce reductions) and because there are more ‘life events’ (financial imperatives, mostly) that cause good people to leave and go elsewhere.

An emphasis on RO-something.
Leaders want to create. They’re not so fond of curating. Financial constraints, budget cuts and missed targets push the leader’s role away from creativity and toward management of resources.

The loss of a narrative arc.
In most organizations the last few years have felt like hitting the ‘reset’ button over and over again, with little opportunity to build a consistent leadership framework. Somewhere in all leaders’ subconscious is a desire to leave a legacy – a body of work that amounts to something more than a series of unconnected activities. For many leaders, that ain’t happening right now.

Simply put, what’s happening ‘outside’ – firing people, and learning to do more with less…and less…and less – isn’t congruent with what happens ‘inside’ a leader – the desire to experiment, to motivate, to expand and to grow.

What to do?

What can you do if some or all of these factors are causing you to feel alienated in the new leadership landscape? Maybe nothing, maybe a little. Truth to tell, probably not a lot. The reality is that some of these changes are at least semi-permanent (I’ve listed them above in likelihood of permanence), and none of them will change quickly – in my view, certainly not before 2014.

If you feel like this, here’s my best shot at your options – an encapsulated overview of how I’m coaching leaders who feel alienated by the current leadership climate:

1. First, reconnect with your original vision – is your heart still in this? Are you sure you want to continue?

2. If so, then make an inventory – which of the five things above are bugging you most? What else? (There’ll almost certainly be one or two ‘alienation factors’ that are unique to you and your position.)

3. Next, prioritize what’s ‘missing’. Look at your inventory of alienation factors – which of them can you live with for the next few years, and which positively, absolutely need to change for you to be happy and satisfied?

4. Having identified your priorities, look around. Can you reshape the environment, now or later, to make the changes you need? If you intensely feel the loss of a close-knit team, can you bring that back? If you need to get away from doing more with less and back to creative expansion, how can you make that happen?

5. Finally, if you can’t change the current environment to meet those prioritized needs, can you can you move to a new environment entirely, to achieve what you want?

Good luck. We need leaders now, more than ever.


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  1. I’m 23 years old, a Sgt in the military, and i have grown to discover that alienation is the nature of the beast. I arrived at my new facility, which had more inexperienced personnel in leadership roles. Thier current team structure was one with peers in leadership roles. Their group was tight knit, they all spent time together outside of work and formed a bond with one another.
    I arrived and was put in charge as a SGT. My current unit leadership, from immediate next level to the heads of the military, strictly enforce fraternization rules, meaning If I, as an NCO, go hang out with those who I am responsible for, the junior enlisted, I can potentially lose rank and pay. If something negative happens to any one of them, I bear the blunt of the reprocussion, and I am expected to be stern and keep them in line, and I’m not supposed to socialize and create a bond with them. The whole system hinders my ability to create and develop an environment of trust, because of policy and stigma being too unforgiving.
    As the article shows, Civilian cooperations are shifting to look more like the military, due to budget cuts and hardship forcing upper leaders to become stricter in order to increase efficiency, to absorb financial troughs. It takes a certain kind of leader to create balance.

    1. Leo,
      Thank you for sharing your experience. Taking on a leadership role over an existing close-knit team poses challenges under normal circumstances, let alone when the team spends all of their time together.
      That said, it sounds like you’re aware of your circumstances and will work towards achieving that balance you describe. It just may take more time, since you are restricted when it comes to your interactions. Is there a leader who could act as your role model, either where you are stationed, or who you have worked with in the past?
      Thank you again for your comments and for your service.
      Best wishes,
      Sarah Berger
      Community Manager, Predictable Success

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