Leading When Leadership is Impossible

As I engage with groups across the world, there is one question that I am continuously asked.  While the question takes many forms, the underlying issue is always the same and it is what constrains every individual and every organization.  The issue is fear or hierarchical helplessness.  “In my organization, the senior person (or the culture) is… (fill in the blank with negative words), how could I ever practice the principles of positive leadership?”

When people ask this question they are speaking from experience.  They “know” with certainty that it is impossible for them to become a purpose driven leader.  For this reason I cherish accounts of purpose driven leaders in adverse, hierarchical situations.  If such people are present, they challenge the logic of helplessness. The cases suggest that it must be possible to lead when leadership is impossible.

A friend wrote and indicated that he was moved by a recent blog describing a team leader who created social excellence despite the hierarchy above him.  After some introductory remarks he shares his own account.

There is a difference between changing the organization above and building a high functioning team within the organization.  Over the years, I learned that churn at the top was not manageable, but if my team had the priority of top-notch service and excellence I generally had the freedom to lead. 

          One price was to listen to every new director lecture me and pontificate on how things had to change.  In each case, my team’s commitment to indiscriminating service excellence always resulted in appreciative support that was seldom voiced.  Yet the unspoken appreciation allowed me to operate as a leader.  Creating an excellent team gives you credibility that others do not have.    

          It was not easy.  Hiring for talent, focusing on caring for everyone, showing infinite patience, and reminding the team of who paid us, was a frequent requirement.  I was seldom perfect, but I never stopped working at it.  I was constant.  Constancy determines culture. 

          I found there were few external rewards, but the intrinsic rewards were potent.  I loved getting out of bed in the morning.  At my retirement ceremony there was one surprising moment of external recognition.  The speaker declared that I had done more than anyone in moving the organization forward over the last 30 years. 

            The surprising claim is interesting.  Could it be true?  We had some high visibility directors come and go.  We had many people at my level come and go.  Could it be that I had done more than anyone in moving the organization forward?  Even if the claim is only partially true, the implications are significant.  The claim suggests that other people in other difficult hierarchies might have profound impact.  The door is open to all but I think there is one key issue to keep in mind.            

          I do not believe that leading a team in a hierarchy is ever simple.  In fact, it is highly complex.  I do believe the key is clear purpose and values, both personally and collectively.  There were two times in those 30 years that I had to go to two different directors and threaten to quit if they didn’t deal with a particular personnel problem.  Fortunately, in both cases, they agreed.  It was not until I accessed that kind of commitment that I was eventually able to nurture excellence in my team. 

          In my thirty years I had many upward conversations that failed to produce needed concessions.  Yet, over time, the needed resources tended to come.   

        Today I would say one of my great joys was watching the team work in crisis situations.  They were so self-actualizing, so selfless, and so able to understand how to take advantage of each member’s talents.  We did hard things that did truly seem impossible and, on occasion, potentially saved the organization.   It was really hard to leave that team. Team excellence prevailed then and it continues today, even though I am no longer there. 


  • How many people in your organization “know” it is impossible to be a purpose driven, positive leader?
  • If the process was so complex, and required so much personal clarity and courage, why would anyone engage it, why did this person do what he did?
  • It the final paragraph we see a key for doing the impossible, what is it?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?