McCadden: Absentee Leadership Is a Recipe for Mediocrity

by Kyle Clapham
Shawn Headshot Accountant

In one of my previous columns, I asked if your business had become excellent at being mediocre. I offered some examples of how and why a business can be at risk of falling into that black hole. My examples in that article, which was published in August 2019, were relevant to industry dynamics at that time.

Some of the things I see happening today prompted me to issue another warning. Your leadership in times of turmoil are critically important. Your business can become mediocre, or it can positively differentiate you and put your business ahead of the pack.

It’s my observation that the whole world around us is slowly becoming more mediocre. Think about the poor service we often tolerate to buy something at a store or to order takeout at a local restaurant. If you register a complaint, a business owner might say how hard it is to find good help. Good help is hard to find, but it’s an excuse. If you keep looking, you can and will find good help. They just give up too easily.

Tough Love Required

The best employees are individuals who come with the potential of being good embedded in their DNA. Those characteristics need to be identified and nurtured, so as they move from entry level positions up the ladder, they can blossom and shine.

Today, there are a lack of entry-level job positions available to young folks. Without these opportunities early in their careers, they miss out on the lessons and soft skills they could have gained and mastered if only a good business leader or manager had helped nurture them along.

For example, a young worker will learn to be on time if their boss practices tough love and sends them home that day, insisting if they still want their job, they need to show up next time and every time after that on time. Too many employees today think they deserve an award or a raise just for showing up. Too many business owners enable them to think this way when they tolerate such performance. They fear that if they send the employee home, he or she might not come back.

Don’t Let Fear Make You Reluctant

Having such fears and allowing them to affect your decision-making will lead to mediocrity. That’s because being a leader in name only is worse than being a bad boss. Not holding an employee accountable is not being a bad boss; it’s being a bad leader at your business, whether you’re the owner or a manager.

When you tolerate such behavior, you become an absentee leader. Research shows absentee leadership is the most common form of incompetent leadership. It is caused by, and is a symptom of, avoiding meaningful involvement with your team. One expert on this subject described it in terms of renting a property. You only take value out of your organization while not putting any value in. Allowing your employees to be mediocre will lead your business slowly down the path of mediocrity.

Be Present

Stop being fearful of what might happen if you provide tough love to your employees when they need it. Practicing constructive leadership can immediately improve your team’s job performances and increase their levels of job satisfaction.

But the effects dwindle quickly. You need to stay with it as long as it is needed. If you don’t do it, think of the example you are setting for the people who may become future leaders at your business. Avoiding being the leader you need to be can cause role ambiguity for employees. It can even lead to increased bullying among team members, as those with good intentions may not have been properly mentored in how to address poorly performing subordinates.

Left unchecked, these things cause employee stress, leading to burnout as well as mental and physical health issues for employees. When these things fester, good employees eventually leave for a better atmosphere because they eventually get to the decision that what they are experiencing and feeling is probably way worse than what they might find by taking the risk of moving to a new job and environment. By being present at your business, you can be proactive about your and others’ leadership.

Listen to Your Team

An absentee leader is in many ways often a silent organization killer. They can even get in the way of blocking potential leaders in your business from stepping up and moving into more important and profitable roles—for them and for your business. What message are you sending your eagles when you tolerate turkeys?

When an employee comes to you with concerns about another, be sure to take the time to fully listen to them. Seek to understand the true reason or reasons for why he or she has come to you. Even though an individual’s complaints are not causing you problems, that is not a reason to excuse or to avoid addressing the concerns of other team members about that individual.

Being an effective leader not only can help you differentiate your business in your marketplace, it also may help you attract and keep the best employees. That is an important consideration in today’s environment. When competitors become mediocre, the reason is fear. They are shrinking from holding staff accountable because they are afraid to lose employees.

Author Scott Gregory offered some great wisdom on this. He shared: “Doing nothing about absentee leaders is easy. Just ask any absentee leader.” QR

Shawn McCadden is a speaker, business trainer, columnist and award-winning remodeler with more than 35 years of experience. He can be reached at

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