What to Do When the Top Dog Is Not Credible

Steve Coats

Q: One reader from a university asks—"We have a situation where the provost is clearly and agreeably on a mission to become a college president. As such, her stated vision for the organization is false and unbelievable and she has no credibility. Anything we attempt to do by her direction is seen as phony since everyone knows she is merely "notching her gun" and we are proceeding with activities and not in an environment of respected leadership toward a TRUE vision. This undermines our 'subordinate' leadership attempts since everyone knows 'we are just working to achieve her personal objectives.' How can you be a 'co/sub' leader when the head dog is clearly and painfully not credible?

A: This situation reminds all of us of an important lesson of leadership. There is a huge difference between having a vision—and having a vision that is shared by others. That is why the practice in The Leadership Challenge is "Inspire a Shared Vision," not "Force Your Vision on Others." And as we all know, it takes a lot of work to enlist others to fully buy into and "share" a vision.

It also reminds us of the great importance of credibility. A leader's lack of credibility does not just reflect on him or her, it impacts those directly associated with the leader as well.

The quick answer to your question is this: when the lead dog is not credible, you have to step up even more to provide the kind of leadership that can overcome that credibility problem. Since working with a leader like this can create a negative perception of your own credibility, you must make a decision that you are unwilling to accept that perception and fill in the leadership void created by her apparent self-serving agenda.

Effective leaders start with themselves, so the first thing to do is reflect on the situation and ask yourself what you might be doing to contribute to it. For example, is it possible that the provost is doing some things good for the university, but her self-serving behaviors are, for some reason, all you seem to see? Think about that.

Realistically, all of us have encounters with poor leaders throughout our careers, and this may be one of those times for you. So here are some other thoughts on what you can do as a leader that hopefully will provide you with some options for taking action.

1) Find and align yourself with others who are in the same situation and determine what you must do collectively in order to preserve your credibility and fulfill the needs of those you serve. When you feel like you might be faced with confronting the authority of a higher-level person, it is better to have people with you, versus going it alone.

2) Be willing to put forth a different vision for the group - one that is inspiring to you, your colleagues and those you serve. It does not have to be carved in granite or approved by the president. It just needs to be shared, and embraced by those you need with you. My guess is they will be willing help you develop it and carry it out. Remember, a prestigious organizational position is not a pre-requisite for having a powerful vision.

3) Figure out a way to provide the provost with some feedback about the consequences of her current behaviors. This can be quite difficult since many people in this position in a university are much more comfortable giving feedback than receiving it, but as a leader you must try. (She may be so focused on her goal to become president that she is unaware of the things she is doing that will ultimately sabotage her chances.)

4) Keep in mind that there is almost always more than one way to get something done, so search for innovative ways to fulfill your responsibilities, while not being directly contrary to the desires of the provost. If what you say about the provost's ambition is true, the people you serve in the university will likely be more interested in collaborating with you than worrying about her.

Good luck,
Steve

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