[November 5, 2020] I’ll begin by noting that the term caretaker leadership is almost never used. The reason is that the two terms are an oxymoron when used together. I have discovered, however, that caretaker leadership happens all the time when a leader is unwilling or unable to fulfill the inherent duties of leadership and yet remains in position.
We’ve all seen caretaker leadership take hold. Whether it be through the reluctant new team leader who only wants to make it to the end of the rating period and can find another job. Or, perhaps it’s the military commander who was chosen to command yet has not yet developed his leadership skills sufficiently. Perhaps this leader was put in a new assignment to purposefully fail.
A good leader is one who develops a vision, a set of principles by which to accomplish specific goals, develops a plan, gathers resources, and communicates what needs to be done. A great leader is one who motivates sufficiently that people “want” to get the job done. Everyone wins in this scenario. Caretaker leadership, on the other hand, rarely gets anything done.
A caretaker leader does none of these things. Relying upon the most minimally acceptable action, this leader is assisted by others close to him, those who can provide any strong recommendations or guidance; irrespective whether it works. In such a situation, we find someone less qualified step into a sub-leadership role that mimics what a real leader would do. This person gains the ear of the caretaker leader and can become a powerful surrogate.
There is nothing more frustrating than having this type of “leader” out front where only a real leader is needed. Often unable to make decisions for fear of making a job-killing mistake, this caretaker leader is hesitant when real decisions are most needed. If a decision is made, it is often without proper analysis or planning beforehand. This leads to basic mistakes that lead to serious disruption.
Learn to recognize caretaker leadership. Avoid it when possible. And encourage that anyone in such a position to voluntarily step down as soon as reasonable.