On Leadership Voids
Black holes and open spaces
For me, collaborating with others generates a creative energy that’s unmatched. Since I work for myself, I think of you all as my colleagues which means I ask you what I should write about. This week’s edition came as a result of a Twitter poll. I’d been thinking about gaps in leadership for ages so I was glad to see the interest.
I wrote, revised, wrote and revised some more for this piece. This is such a rich topic, so depsite all this effort, it feels like I'm still on the first page. I’ll write more on this subject in the future. For now, let’s start here.
Leadership voids are common. In a survey of senior leaders, 32% took the role to fill a void. It’s not surprising. Companies are dynamic entities so their needs change over time including the kind of leaders required for current conditions.
Leadership voids are gaps that no one feels responsible for or they're land whose ownership is in conflict. Let’s start with the positive aspect to this organizational phenomenon. Leadership voids can be openings where emerging talent enters. Folks with capacity and latent talent for leadership can fill cracks, providing much needed momentum for the team and their own career. This kind of impact is powerful. Allowing emerging leaders to come forward is the best side effect of voids. They get a challenge that helps them grow and the gap gets filled. Both the organization and the individual are better for it.
When there isn’t an emerging leader with capacity, leadership voids can cause chaos and organizational distress if not addressed quickly or adequately enough. The other trick is that leadership voids aren’t always readily identified. Sometimes they smolder in the background. What looks like a turf battle just might be a leadership void. The key is deciphering when there’s an opening and discovering the root cause. There are five situations that aren’t quite as obvious.
The root of leadership voids
Lack of investment - In the rush to get to viability, some areas of the business become underinvested over time. It’s so common at scaling companies. This can happen in any area though often in the operations or people side of the organization. This kind of absence means a more junior person steps in to do the basic tasks for the business. It works as a temporary stop gap measure. If allowed to linger, the result is a bare bones foundation but no longer term strategic plan. This creates significant obstacles for companies that wish to scale.
Missing roles - Voids pop up frequently at companies that are moving fast. For example, a company that needs to hire their first sales leader to go after the market and scoop up opportunities. Another common one is head of product. Often this is done ad hoc by the CEO who has a vision of the market opportunity. This leaves a void as the CEO doesn’t have capacity for more detailed planning or to navigate the relationship between product and engineering. If missing roles at the leadership level are left too long, collaboration frays and friction develops threatening the business. Eventually organizational distress descends.
Leadership monocultures - There’s more to consider than just the functional roles of a leadership team. Early stage startups need leadership styles that are persistent and do whatever it takes to get the job done. As scaling begins, a wider variety of leadership styles and traits are required. For example, we need people who can tell the story, helping the company gain attention and customers. Rapidly scaling teams need leaders who excel at spotting and developing talent. Teams that strongly favor one leadership style become lopsided, endangering the business or creating an unsustainable culture.
Inexperience - Voids sometimes happen when the founding team is young and unaware of skill gaps. This kind of opening also happens when someone is promoted too quickly and not given enough mentoring to level them up. In these cases, the leader isn’t able to meet the expectations of the role. It’s not because they don’t want to, the demands of the role outpace their learning. The skill gap can be technical though most often it’s in the intrapersonal and interpersonal realms — emotional intelligence, decision making, collaboration, etc. A gap develops in the face of this inexperience. They have the title but aren’t acting effectively as a leader.
Power concentrations - Change breeds ambiguity and uncertainty — kryptonite for those who long for control and predictability. Voids can form when an influential person’s longing for control concentrates power under them. Rather than a team of leaders, control cedes to one person. As their responsibilities grow, they struggle to meet demands, becoming a road block. Chasms in the business grow. Afraid of stepping on toes, others feel uncomfortable closing those voids. This power concentration become like a black hole, it’s gravitational pull sucking in all the energy. Friction in the leadership team occurs as a result of this land grab. Discord between senior leaders can infect the entire team.
Contrary to what it might seem, not all leaders seek control. There are some leadership archetypes who eschew ego and control, preferring to act as a guide for the team.
Handling Leadership Gaps
There are plenty of other reasons crevices appear like organizational structures that have grown too brittle or there’s a lack of alignment on expectations on the leadership team. Sometimes the problem is our perception of what it means to lead. There’s so much to explore in this rich subject.
Whatever the cause, know that leadership voids will happen. It’s part of the organizational life cycle. Some create open spaces for opportunities. Lean into these green fields. Scout for emerging leaders — just be sure not to throw them into the role without any support. Cultivate raw talent, enabling them to be successful can strengthen the impact they can have.
Other kinds of voids become black holes, especially when unacknowledged. We can solve what we don’t acknowledge. When leadership teams struggle, voids are often an unexplored cause. We feel the pain but don’t yet understand why. Proactively look for gaps. Try to identify them early. Name them. Handling cracks requires hard conversations. Leaning into them resolves the problem faster.
Close gaps for less experienced founders by finding them a guide and offer less experienced leaders an executive coach. Identify the leadership styles on the team and which of the critical ones for this stage of business are missing. If the team decides to fill a hole by having a leader do double duty (for example the CEO also serving as CTO or Head of Product), have a plan to ensure it’s time limited. Having one leadership role is more than enough. Taking on additional duties leads to strain and a lack of focus on the area. This leads to burnout and slows down the company’s ability to meet objectives.
Lingering leadership voids can become black holes pulling the entire team into a vortex of negativity. This kind of emotional contagion can sink cultures and companies. There is hope. If you can figure out which gaps are open spaces and which are black holes, the leadership team can more readily navigate these voids even seeing them as openings for opportunity.
What else to read
What engineering leader Sarah Drasner learned from her mistakes.
How Stripe's COO approaches company building.
What happens on a team when everyone is a leader.
Share your thoughts
Leadership and organizational strategy are closely related. To talk about one often means talking about the other. This week’s topic leaned more on the organizational side. Given my background in social psychology and organization development, I find these subjects fascinating. How about you? Do you find them just as fascinating or do you prefer more intrapersonal and interpersonal related content? Let me know!
Written by Suzan Bond, a leadership coach and former COO. Based in Brooklyn. You can find me elsewhere on Twitter and Medium. Comments or questions about leadership or scaling startups? Send me a note.