The Price of “Going Leaderless”—Lessons from the Libyan Rebels

It’s a case of follow the leader. That’s how organizations are designed to function.  

We expect leaders to lead. Some do and some don’t. We know our success is connected to them, either directly or indirectly. The clearer their direction, the more optimistic we feel. 

Now I’ve worked for or with managers who couldn’t lead themselves out of a paper bag. They would either: 

  • Do what their employees wanted—the avenue of least resistance
  • Do what they thought their bosses wanted, right or wrong
  • Make short-term, inconsequential decisions, easily reversed
  • Talk a good game but never make anything happen, avoiding accountability at all costs 

They made me want to throw up my hands in despair: I knew that forward progress, meaningful change, and/or essential results were not coming through them any time soon. 

One step forward, a dozen back 

We may be tempted to say, at the height of our leader frustrations, that we’re better off with no leader than an impotent one. When our coworkers are great people who “get it,” have the talent, and demonstrate the will, why should we be stymied by a leader in name only. 

Do leaders really matter when we all know what we’re fighting for? 

The Libyan rebel forces attempting to overthrow the 42-year dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, are testing the question. 

They started out strong, taking cities to the east. Then they headed toward Tripoli, Gaddafi’s stronghold. The U.S., along with coalition forces, took action to create a no-fly zone, providing the rebels with some cover from the onslaught of pro-government forces. 

The rebels moved forward and then back. Forward again…back again. 

Earlier this week, Richard Engel, NBC’s chief foreign correspondent, filed reports about how the rebels were holding up under the retreat-causing pressures from Gaddafi. He made these observations:

 Many rebels were feeling dejected, losing confidence and optimism because:

  • There was no central leadership to provide strategies or tactics for the fight.
  • They had weapons (although not enough) but limited skills in how to use them.
  • There were no coordinated means of communication to let them know how the fighting was going or to (re)direct their actions. 

Engel asked one of the rebels what keeps them fighting. The answer: Honor and the desire for freedom. 

Borzou Daragahi and David Zucchino from the Tribune Newspapers, reported in a March 31, 2011 article in The Morning Call: 

“The rebel effort was plagued by confusion and dissention. Volunteer fighters bickered over tactics and weapons.” 

More signs of the price of leaderless-ness. 

Leaders make a difference. 

 There’s a price to pay for going leaderless, heading into uncharted territory without a guide. Why? Because leaders define reality and set direction.

Leaders are the people who pull things together so that we can “battle” wisely and successfully. At work we need leaders who will: 

  • Build strategies that position us for success and build optimism
  • Assemble a coalition of supporters to get approval for our ideas
  • Step in and halt actions that are unfair or counterproductive
  • Upgrade our skills to meet new demands
  • Advocate for collaboration and resolve differences
  • Represent our interests in negotiations
  • Obtain and allocate the resources we need
  • Give us reason for enthusiasm and celebration 

When we’re leaderless, we flounder. We keep looking around, searching for someone to step in and pull everything together, putting us on sound footing. The longer we have to wait, the greater our struggle to stay motivated, confident, and optimistic. 

Just like the rebels, we want a leader who believes we’ll succeed, so we’ll believe it too and work harder. 

When it’s all on the line, great leaders pull disparate forces together.  They give us the best chance to advance, no matter what obstacles we face. When you least expect it, that leader may be you. Hope you’re getting ready!

Photo from شبكة برق | B.R.Q via Flickr