A while back, the Harvard Business Review published an article about the most deleterious kind of leader in the workforce today—more destructive than the abusive boss, more irritating than the micromanager, more conniving than the manipulator. The most destructive, and unfortunately the most common kind of bad leader, is the absentee leader. That is, one who is psychologically absent from the role, and who regularly fails to show up in the way that is needed by the team.
Absentee leadership is not about a lack of physical presence. Quite often, the best leaders are the ones who are out of the office much of the time, making connections and positioning the organization for success. One can be out of the office yet still present to the team. Rather, absentee leaders are those who distance themselves from those they purport to lead, and the effects are disastrous.
While it might seem that having a boss who leaves you alone to do your thing would be ideal, the research shows that this is actually more alienating than a boss who yells and screams. Of course, the abusive boss has a toxic effect on everyone, but that effect is quick to show up and easy to spot. By contrast, the effects of an absentee leader are often delayed, difficult to pinpoint, and can snake their way through an organization for years. Left unchecked, absentee leadership fosters high rates of job dissatisfaction, turnover, role ambiguity, and even mental health issues.
The antidote for all of this is for leaders to become very deliberate and intentional with how they show up for their teams. That might seem like common sense, and it is, but common sense isn’t as common as it once was, and without such intentionality it is very easy for leaders to drift into absenteeism. Fortunately, there are some concrete steps one can take to avoid this particular pitfall.
1. Cultivate Self-Awareness
Of all the things a leader can do to bolster effectiveness, this one tops the list. The importance of self-awareness cannot be understated. A leader’s degree of self-awareness can make or break an organization, and unfortunately it is one of the most elusive qualities to foster. According to research done by Tasha Eurich and her team, only about 10-15% of the population is truly self-aware, with the rest of us falling somewhere on a spectrum. Self-awareness in this sense refers to the extent to which one accurately sees one’s values, aspirations, actions, reactions, and how those align with the reality of how others see us.
One way to cultivate this skill is through daily journaling that focuses on questions of “what,” rather than “why.” What am I feeling right now? What would make today great? What might trip me up today, and how would my best self respond? What can I do for others today to make them feel valued? Make this a regular part of your morning routine and pay close attention to how your relationships are affected.
2. Maintain Regular Operating Rhythms
Teams function best when they know what is expected of them, and when there is a regularity to operations. Team meetings, for example, should ideally be on the same day of the week at the same time. They should start on time and end on time. Be consistent.
3. Have Regular 1:1 Meetings with Your Direct Reports
Related to the above are regular 1:1 check-ins with your directs. Do not skip these, and if you must miss, be sure to reschedule. People need to connect with you, ask questions, and get guidance. Do not leave them unaided.
4. Take the Pulse of Your Team with a 360 Review
This speaks to the self-awareness issue above. Do not make assumptions about how things are going; get some feedback. Work with HR to craft and administer a simple survey that consists of open-ended questions like, “What do you wish [leader] would start doing?” “What do you wish [leader] would stop doing?” “What do you wish [leader] would continue doing?” Be sure to take steps to safeguard people’s anonymity, and have HR scrub all responses for any potentially identifying information before you see the results.
Again, the trick to avoiding absenteeism in your leadership is to be deliberate about everything you do and say, and to cultivate the self-awareness that allows you to show up and be your best.