Passive Leadership Is the Worst Kind

passive leadership is the worst kind

The Art of War by Sun Tzu is often used as a device to teach strategic thinking in business. As the title suggests, the book is about waging war, but it is used as a metaphor for dealing with competitive situations for individuals and organizations. Lessons such as choosing your battles, knowing your adversaries, and setting priorities are certainly important. But what struck me is not Sun Tzu’s discussion of how best to win battles, but what he had to say about leadership. The important message here is that passive leadership is the worst kind.

From The Art of War to Ohio State University

Most of The Art of War is concerned with strategy and tactics for waging war but interspersed are comments about how to lead followers. There are two principles that Sun Tzu notes. Leaders should care about their followers, as he says, “treat them as beloved sons”. Second, leaders must provide direction and not be weak or passive. Twenty-five hundred years later, the importance of caring and strength was rediscovered in the Ohio State Leadership Studies. The researchers at Ohio State University noted that there are two important dimensions of leadership.

  • Consideration: Leaders should show concern for their followers and care about their welfare. This includes accepting follower input, keeping followers informed, and looking out for their welfare.
  • Initiating Structure: Leaders should organize the activities of followers, so they know what is expected of them and the leader. It should be clear what followers should do and how they should do it.

These two dimensions of leadership go hand in hand for those in supervisory positions in organizations. Initiating structure means organizing the work and making assignments. This approach can seem overbearing if it is not tempered by personal concern. The supervisor who is high on both dimensions will clarify expectations yet is open to input by employees that can provide vital feedback that what is being proposed is problematic. Such supervisors are willing to adjust if employees have a better way.

A supervisor who is high on initiating structure but low on consideration will have unhappy employees who view their leader as autocratic and uncaring. Such employees will have difficulty staying motivated and might even sabotage the work. A supervisor who is high on consideration but low on initiating structure will come across as passive and perhaps too nice. Not only will they fail to get the job done, but their employees will still be unhappy, just for a different reason.

Passive Leadership Is the Worst Kind

Passive leaders are those who fail to provide direction to followers. There can be many reasons for inaction including avoidance of conflict with others, fear of doing the wrong thing, or uncertainty about what is the appropriate action. Regardless of the reason, and whether passive leaders are considerate or not, passive leadership is the worst kind. Followers might accept an inconsiderate leader who provides clear direction that enables those followers to be successful on the job. Passive leaders can be even worse by getting in the way of success.

 I have been part of two research teams that published studies about how passive leadership can be destructive. The first by Xin Xuan Che, Zhiqing Zhou, Stacey Kessler and Paul Spector was published in the peer-reviewed journal Work & Stress. This study showed that employees with passive supervisors experienced burnout and signs of physical stress. Employees with passive leaders felt their workloads were heavy, most likely due to a lack of structure. The second by Stacey Kessler, Kari Bruursema, Burcu Rodopman, and Paul Spector was published in Negotiation and Conflict Management Research. It showed how employees with passive supervisors were likely to feel distressed at work, get into conflicts with coworkers, and lash out by engaging in counterproductive work behavior which consists of destructive acts directed at the organization.

Employees need direction so that they know what is expected. They also need someone to coordinate their activities, especially when their work is interconnected. Often the specific direction is not as important as having a direction. Allowing everyone to choose their own path will usually lead to a lack of coordination, conflict among employees, and stress.

The wisdom of Sun Tzu and the Ohio State Leadership researchers is that the best leaders are those who care about their followers and provide them with structure. The leader who does both is an active leader who creates a climate in which followers can thrive.

Photo by Kulbir from Pexels

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4 Replies to “Passive Leadership Is the Worst Kind”

  1. Hi!
    I am a I/O Master’s student at FIU, and we just had a discussion about doing anything is better than doing nothing.
    I found your article very insightful and enhancing to our class period.
    However, do you think such passive leaders have a roll at all? For example my mind instantly jumped to Zappos and Google type cultures where leadership almost takes a back seat to collaboration, teamwork, and independence.
    What are your thoughts?

    1. I am glad you found the article interesting for class discussion.

      Organizations that provide a high degree of autonomy to employees still need leadership. Someone at the top has to set goals and strategic directions, and give out assignments to various groups and departments. There might not be daily supervision of individuals as they do their tasks, but leaders still need to communicate and motivate employees throughout the organization so everyone has a shared vision of what needs to be accomplished, and efforts are coordinated.

  2. Thank you for taking your time to respond to me.
    How can an effective leader find that balance between providing direction and communication with independence and autonomy?
    How can a leader provide freedom to their employees without becoming passive?

    1. A very successful high level leader told me his secret was to hold people accountable for what they accomplish but give them the freedom to choose how to get there, at least within reasonable limits. This is best done by developing good working relationships and trust. The leader communicates the vision and supports employees, but empowers them to do their jobs. Of course, the amount of autonomy depends on what they are doing and how interconnected they are to others. It is hard to give complete autonomy on the assembly line, but it might be possible to organize around autonomous work groups and hold them accountable for output.

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