There is a type of person who might be damaging your firm. Let me identify him for you and tell you how to lead him to more productive ways.
You may have heard someone described as a person who “can’t lead but won’t follow.” This character is common, particularly in large organizations, and he can do much harm.
He tends to think of himself as “loyal opposition,” as one who helps the firm by providing the needed “push back” to the leader’s ideas and direction. It might seem logical that this guy would really prefer to be out on his own, to run his own show away from bosses, management teams, and accountability. The truth is that people like this tend to embed themselves near strong leaders. They do so because, though they may not realize it, they feel most comfortable where a gifted visionary is assuring progress but they can play the “contrarian.”
Now, sometimes this guy is merely rebellious or lazy. If this is the case, he needs to go. However, I’ve found that, as frustrating as someone like this can be, he usually wants to be a helpful part of a team. He’s just ruled by fear and insecurity. His “contra” behavior has to be confronted. The smart leader will help him see what is really motivating him and then help him make the needed changes. Sometimes, these contrarians even become good leaders themselves.
Unfortunately, this fellow has two cousins. The first is the man who “won’t lead but will object.” This person is similar to the first type, but fear so dominates him that he doesn’t even have good, alternative opinions to offer. He simply fears anything new, bold, costly, or coming from someone else.
Again, the wise leader has to confront this “objecting” behavior, expose the fear behind it, and help the person understand why forward motion terrifies him. Once this guy is confronted and coached, he usually begins to rise. He also usually becomes a much happier person. The same fear that made him oppose anything new and innovative at work also tormented the rest of his life. Once he gets free, he gets happy—and productive.
The other cousin to the man who “can’t lead and won’t follow” is the man who “can’t lead but will undermine.” This guy has the same fears and insecurities as his cousins but adds to them an element of sneakiness. Rather than oppose or object openly and honestly, he goes underground and tries to craft conspiracies to thwart the leader’s plans. He gossips, he tries to persuade the weak-willed and unethical into seeing things his way, and he encourages rebellion against the leader wherever he can.
My experience indicates that this third guy has to be fired. We can usually address fear and insecurity, but I’ve rarely seen a basic lack of character fixed on the job. I hope for better, believe me. It is just hard for the sneaky rebels in this world to change their ways.
What is important for every leader to keep in mind is that, as irritating as this family of contrarians is, they cannot be left unconfronted. The great leader has to be both smart and bold. He has to make the truth of what is happening clear to all involved. He has to insist upon change. Then, he has to allow former rebels to soar as leaders if they can. It is marvelous to behold when it happens.