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When Leaders Don't Know What to Do


I recall a team pursuing an activity that they all knew was useless. I asked a senior person why they were doing this. He said, “It’s because they don't know what else to do”. This phenomenon shows up in all organizations from time to time. Leaders often feel compelled to do something and sometimes will do something ill-advised rather than do nothing at all.

Why might a leader not be able to do anything about an issue? Here are three reasons:

· There really is nothing that can be done. It’s beyond everyone’s control.

· There is something that can be done but not by that leader.

· There is something that can be done but it's so unpalatable the leader dares not do it.

Let’s look at each of these reasons.

There really is nothing that can be done

If market conditions are bad, then it may be that nothing can be done other than to wait things out. it may be that the company will inevitably lose money for several years. Fussing around with things like reorganizations, culture change, or downsizing may make things worse however the leader may do them anyways because they feel compelled to act.

The key in these situations is to recognize “We are in the kind of situation that often leads people to do things that make matters worse. Let’s commit to not taking any rash actions.” It’s tough for leaders to admit they can’t fix things, but knowing when to wait things out is a sign of wisdom.

There is something that can be done, but not by you

Imagine a CEO in Chicago who is troubled by labour unrest at their big factory in Vietnam. They may feel compelled to set a direction, issue edicts, and implement changes but the truth is that only the Vietnamese managers on the ground know the situation well enough to have a chance at solving it. Interference from America is only likely to make things harder for them.

Another example would be a nationwide chain of retail shops where the circumstances of each store vary significantly (e.g., downtown, rural, in a mall, mini-store, megastore, based in the north-east, based in south-west). It may be that any detailed policies from a leader at headquarters will be suboptimal for many locations. The leader in headquarters can’t fix things for each unique location, they need to rely on having strong local managers and leaving the decisions to them.

However, it is tough for a leader to admit there is little they can do and that they are relying on local managers to fix the unique problems each one faces.

It is a hard reality to accept, however a lot of the time there is relatively little a senior leader who is not right on site can do about a situation. The key is to trust the people close to the action to do the right thing and ask them what support they need. If you don’t trust the people close to the action, and you are confident that better people are available, then sure, you replace the managers. However, sometimes leaders lead best by stepping aside and not trying to control something that their subordinates understand better than they do.

There is something that can be done, but it is unpalatable

Sometimes leaders do things they know won't work because they don't want to face up to the right decision. For example, there may be a project that needs to be cancelled, a product that needs to be discontinued, or an expensive problem dealt with instead of being swept under the rug.

In these cases, the leader needs a trusted advisor who will help them face up to an unpleasant reality. They will need coaching on how to minimize the fallout from an unpopular decision and how to get enough stakeholders onside so that the leader isn’t blamed for the unpopular choice.


It’s useful to recognize that sometimes leaders don’t know what to do and so do something useless or harmful instead. In these cases, HR needs to help coach them through the situation and at the very least help them avoid making matters even worse.


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