How to tame an uncontrollable boss

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Many of us have been watching the extended “lost weekend” of Tesla’s Elon Musk as though it’s a slow motion car crash.

While he’s clearly made some outstanding business moves in recent years, it’s now less clear whether he is in control of his businesses or himself. Time will tell.

While few of us may be working for someone quite as extreme as Elon Musk, there’s a reasonable likelihood that we’ll find ourselves working for a leader who has gone out of control at some stage.

The uncontrollable leader generally falls into one of four types:

    1. The autocrat: the leader who treasures their autonomy above all else. They may be an owner/operator or someone who simply acts as though they are. They may be likeable, effective and even thoughtful, but they will not accept any challenges to their decisions and opinions.
    2. The one trick pony: someone who’s managed to make a positive business impact, usually over a relatively short time period, then drinks their own Kool-Aid in terms of why they succeeded. There are three main subtypes of this:
    a. The lucky leader: the business climate was so favourable that almost anyone could have done well
    b. The single-style leader: a single leadership approach they took that was fit for the circumstances – e.g. a command-and-control style in a time of crisis – that they now believe works in all situations (Note: it doesn’t!)
    c. The casino leader: they took a high-risk high-reward bet that came off the first (and perhaps second) time, and they are now addicted to that approach
    3. The personal maelstrom leader: someone who is out of control for totally different reasons from the above, usually personal in nature. It could be alcoholism, relationship breakdown, serious health issues or simply a deep dissatisfaction with either their work or their life.
    4. The narcissist/egomaniac: this is the worst of the lot. This person has gained their position through a combination of above average ability and effort with high charisma and influencing skills. However, beneath this are character shortcomings that can make their behaviour expedient, self-serving, unethical or even unlawful.

I’ve encountered all of the above on multiple occasions and my advice differs depending on what kind of “uncontrollable leader” they are.

With the autocrat, the key is to balance being respectful with a plain-speaking approach. This will connect with them much better than the sycophancy they might get from many of their team.

Take your time to listen and build trust before giving your views. Don’t embarrass them in front of their team. Avoid hype and sweeping statements, just focus on the facts of a specific situation.

More than anything, show that this is about the best interests of the business. Even if they have grown unaccustomed to people disagreeing with them, if you frame your advice well and ground it in practical business sense, they’ll usually listen to you.

They may not say so at the time, but you might find they reflect it in future actions.

The one-trick-pony leader is more difficult. Essentially, they have an internal narrative telling them “I know the best way and my success proves it”.

They are lacking self-awareness.

There are a few ways of getting through this. Firstly, when something doesn’t go well, there may be an opportunity to get them to reflect on the non-universality of their favoured approach.

Secondly, there may be an opportunity to get some feedback for them — perhaps the Head of HR can instigate 360-degree feedback for the executive team, get the leader an executive coach or organise a workshop with a renowned expert in the field of cognitive bias. The extent to which they take these insights onboard may be a reflection of their capacity for humility.

What about the leader suffering from the personal maelstrom?

If the leader can see the damaging impact they are having, they might resign, take a leave of absence or step back from some of their responsibilities. If they can’t see this or won’t let go, then things can get very messy.

It’s all too common to see an out-of-control personal life seep into a leader’s professional life. They may become moody, lethargic, unpredictable, irrational or prone to emotional outbursts.

Because the leader’s personal well-being is at risk, such situations can be extremely delicate and need to be handled accordingly.

Ultimately, professional help may be needed and again it may be the Head of HR who is best placed to assist.

Finally, there’s the case of the narcissist.

While you could continue to be successful under this leader, there’s little chance that the person will care about your development or future, except to the extent that it serves their agenda.

Their utter lack of humility means that they may take credit for your good work and refuse to take personal responsibility for failures.

Unless you are either as self-serving as them or want to stay around for morbid curiosity, perhaps it’s time to start working on your CV and talking to recruiters – because you can assume that the narcissist will be doing the same.

(Anthony Mitchell is the co-founder and Chief Potential Officer of Bendelta, focusing on designing organisations and leaders for the cyber-physical age. He is also Chairman of the Aurora Education Foundation, providing accelerated development opportunities for Australia’s most promising Indigenous scholars, and a member of the Amnesty International 2020 Council.)

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