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Every staff member will follow the leadership of their Manager. A Manager has four leadership options:
  • Good leadership
  • Poor leadership
  • Mediocre/average leadership
  • No leadership.
Poor, mediocre or no leadership can result in a leadership vacuum. In situations where there is a leadership vacuum, invariably a staff member will step up to the role. Unfortunately the outcome does not often work for the company, the team, or the staff member.
Staff can only operate for a limited period of time in a leadership vacuum. The length of time can be dependent upon a number of factors:
  • Combination of the team
  • The team experience and collective trust
  • Company systems and procedures
  • Changes in the market place requiring leadership decisions, when no leadership is available.
Often highly motivated, talented employees with a strong belief in the company will move up to fill the leadership vacuum. In some cases the abilities are recognised and the staff member rewarded with additional training and promotion but every now-and-then problems arise.
The difficulties may stem from:
  • High level of technical skill but lack of people-leadership or management skills.
  • Not appreciating the overall management structure or objectives
  • Operating out of their perceived personal agenda
  • Lack of information
In addressing the problem caused by the leadership vacuum, it is important to understand and appreciate the motivation of the staff members who have operated in the leadership vacuum. Their motivation, support and goodwill are to be applauded. However, where correction is necessary it needs to be handled in a considered and measured way. After all you are in the position of needing to reprimand or chasten a highly-motivated employee who at least initially was motivated to step up to leadership out of their belief and concern for the company.
Unfortunately human pride gets in the way of assessing and moving through these episodes of a company’s existence or growth. Failing to address the problem is not an option - the situation will only get worse and the repercussions for the company are not good. Handled sensitively, at best you can hope that management and the staff member grow in wisdom and management ability. If the company management stays the same, even with an improvement in leadership, the chances of the staff member staying long-term are small.
If the step up to leadership is motivated by a desire for power, position, or influence, then having declared themselves, they will have great difficulty returning to their previous position and role within the team.
If the problem has arisen, all may not be lost.  But leadership needs to be shown, whether by the board, new management or outside consultants, with the ability to lead the company through the problem. There is a strong need to go back to basics, reaffirming all that is right within the organisation and making the necessary changes that will rectify the problem.
Of great importance is to get staff buy-in; firstly, that the problem needs to be addressed and secondly, to the desired outcomes.
You might like to consider the following checklist. It is not exhaustive but will assist with your strategic thinking and planning:
  • Organisational structure
  • Job descriptions
  • Training and up-skilling required
  • Team buy-in and involvement
  • Communication and information staff
  • Advising clients and/or customers if appropriate
  • Team building
  • Review of decisions made and action taken
  • Time line – how much time do you have to solve the problem.
The problem of a leadership vacuum will not go away by itself; waiting to see what will happen or deciding to do nothing, will only lead to greater problems.
If you have the experience and leadership skills to rectify the problem, our best of luck.  But if you do not, then we recommend seeking professional advice.