Absentee leadership — a cause for concern?

I had a breakfast discussion last week with a friend of mine, a SVP of Sales for a major medical device company, and we discussed the growing practice of CEOs/Presidents  and other execs who live in a city other than where their company's headquarters is located and who commute to work.  His boss falls into this category and while my friend admires him and his stamina, what is typically a Tuesday - Thursday marathon work week when his CEO is in the office, the situation causes issues.  As an executive coach to CEOs and Business Unit heads across the US, I see more examples of "commuting executives" each year.  And as the practice gains acceptance at the top of the house, it seems to be more and more common at the VP level, too. We discussed a number of issues with this situation, which he referred to as "absentee leadership".  Some of the concerns addressed were:

  • The impact of the commute on the commuting executive and his/her effectiveness;
  • The impact of the commuting executive on the other members of the top team and their families, e.g.,  inordinately long work days, a 24 x 7 work ethic while the boss is at the office and in town, etc.
  • The impact of the absence of the leader when he/she is not in town and the absence of the MBWA and informal interactions that occur when all time together is "on agenda".
  • The impact on the climate of the workplace — the 24 x 7 workday, pacesetting climate issues;
  • The issue of "absentee leadership" when the top exec is not around;
  • The growing trend of commuting executives;
  • And last but not least, the impact on the commuting executive's family.

These are just a few of the issues we surfaced.  What are your thoughts about this "commuting executive" phenomenon? 

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  • Michael De'Shazer

    A commuting executive is fine, as long as his or her absence doesn't become a kickstand to hold up the bicycle of a company which is immobile. But, say the company is moving and at faster speeds than when the exec was present, then either the exec is pretty damn good or not necessary at all. All incidents require individual judgement.

  • Jay Tatum

    Dear Chuck,

    I appreciate you concern and the facts that you bring to bear on this issue. As a coach, consultant, and counselor myself, I find that many top executives have some rather unrealistic and unorthodox business practices that impacts the quality of product/services lines as well as the void of absentee leadership. While you find this a somewhat new phenom, I've seen it for years with business, civil and political appointees, and military leaders. And I have come to hypothesize that the issue is akin to herding cats!

    What you are describing sounds more like a combination of factors that contribute to problem areas that affect the productivity of the staff, and may be the exec, but it isn't a problem for as many leaders as it is for their followers. I have a number of clients who telecommute from their homes in Florida, where I live, to places all over the country. The challenge, I think, is the clash of values internally to the organization. So here's a couple of positive thoughts to move the discussion along:

    Self-differentiating leaders take responsibility for their own destiny. They define their positions, articulate who they are, what they are doing, what they expect of and from others, and don't shrink at contoversy. Comparatively, those followers who complain that their productivity is tied to the execs absence suggests that the follower is not taking responsibility for his or her own destiny. In other words, self-differentiating leaders are "present," even when they are gone. That's leadership par excellence! The emphasis of self-differentiating leadership is on defining who one is, what one is about, and what one hopes to accomplish. That kind of leadership is present well after the leader is gone (the presence of the Past - Jacob Marley).
    The Toxic Environment and the Response of the Organism, or TE/RO. The Leader sets the pace and when the leader expects followers to function at a 24/7 pace during their Tues-Thurs schedule, unfulfilled and unrealistic expectations replace productivity and quality suffers. In my experience, coaching the execs to define their position is tempered with fulfilling a realistic expectation. Asking the staff to go the extra mile for a special project in which every one shares the bounty is one thing, but when the execs take the credit and claim the booty at the expense of the rank and file, sabotage is sure to follow, and hence, the Toxic Environment develops. What's interesting, though, is that the Response of the Organism, in this case, the followers, can leap tall buildings with a single bound when they have bought into the leader's vision. And when they don't, haven't, or won't, sabotage is a sure bet, but it doesn't stop there. Remember, there are two sides to that coin and seduction is the counter balance to sabotage. Seduction can be equally as toxic as sabotage with all the accompanying warm and fuzzies but no meat on the bones of productivity. Another way to see this is to think of this in terms of Resistance to Change.
    Finally, I would want to focus my attention on the strenghts of what is working, how well it works, and whether it could become even stronger. There is so much negativity at large in the business community at times that it is easy to be distracted from one's vision and mission. I would want to evaluate the positive attributes of the Absentee Leader and make a list of the top twenty and then re-direct and re-engage the followership to discover their own strengths of leadership in being an extension of the execs leadership. Sometimes, being a catalyst for change in an organization requires one to position one's self in a more self-differentiating way to achieve the desired outcome. Our US military is a great examply of what one person can do with the Army's campaign "An Army of One." The other branches do it equally as well, like the few, the proud, Marines, and it requires one to simply be the first to step forward.
    I don't have a website or regular blog, I've not written a book or presented at conferences and conventions. But I am a keen observer of the human condition and find that most human creates function pretty much the same regardless of race, religion, national origin, culture, etc. There are great leaders and there are wanna be leaders. Absentee Leadership may not be a bad thing if it works and there is mutual respect for all involved. And for your colleague with whom you have discussed this, I wonder what it would be like to engage him in conversation about the positive attributes of absentee leadership and whether that could be a catalsyt for change.
    Thanks for the opportunity to comment. And by the way, I am one of those telecommuters presently. And it's working for me.