Is passive leadership a new trend or passing fad? Has assertive leadership taken a back seat to laissez faire guidance?

Recently I have noticed a shift in supervisors away from being the traditional “take charge” type leader to a more “back seat” supervisor, which opens us up for problems.

The current malaise within our leadership ranks is concerning and worthy of closer examination. Noted author and motivational speaker John C. Maxwell holds that a leader is “one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” For the record I am not painting all leaders into this category with one broad paint brush rather to just look at that small subset within our ranks who are more toward the hands-off persuasion in leading or directing than the hands on get-it-done approach.

It is this small subset of leaders that I hope to address distinguishing some of the traits of passive leaders versus those of genuine leaders and offers some direction on how to better develop and create the genuine leaders we all strive to have leading in our different agencies.

Passive Leader: Represents the rank
Genuine Leader: Enhances the rank by doing the right thing in the absence of anyone else

General Norm Schwarzkopf understood this better than most. He held that leadership is “taking charge, being willing to take the responsibility….taking responsibility and then doing what’s right ….because it is right!”

True leaders are “forward leaning” as we say in the military, taking measures to be proactive and forecast situations, needs, trends, etc. The shift I have seen is from that style of leadership role to one of a more docile and back-seat position that I refer to as “passive leadership.”


Passive Leader: Driven by tasks
Genuine Leader: Driven by goals

This in no way is to paint a picture that all leaders are passive. There are many great leaders in my organization and I am sure your respective organizations. The issue is that even one passive leader amongst our ranks can tear down an organization or at the very least create a situation which results in issues for us.

These supervisors have assumed more of a “fire house” mentality and response and act only when there is a situation at hand, when the “alarm” is sounded, than to be actively searching for the burning ember and extinguishing it before it even becomes a problem or a fire.

Passive Leader: Puts on the uniform and looks at the rank device
Genuine Leader: Puts on the uniform and doesn’t notice the device

This passive leadership can be toxic to an organization as it creates a culture of allowing problems to happen. Responses such as “How is that my problem,” “That’s not my job,” “That’s not my responsibility,” or “It wasn’t a problem before” should never be acceptable or tolerated.

Perhaps comedienne Lily Tomlin said it best when she stated “I always wondered why somebody doesn’t do something about that. Then I realized I was somebody.” All leaders are that “somebody” and should espouse global leadership traits and work toward improving the overall organization at every turn.

Passive Leader: Addresses the problem after it arises
Genuine Leader: Works to identify causes of potential problems and addresses them BEFORE they become the problem

I am sure many of you have seen passive leadership in your organizations. One example is as a e-mail sent to sergeants with a specific task to be delivered and deadline with their lieutenants and captains above them are copied on the “cc” line.

It would be easy for a passive leader to see that the e-mail was not sent to them on the “to” line and take no further interest in the task at hand or the deliverable sought. The passive leader will see the e-mail was sent to the sergeant and assume he/she will handle it and stay out of the picture. That unfortunately, demonstrates a void in leadership and can lead to the task not being completed, not being completed correctly, or not being completed on time. Leadership has always been action oriented, not positional.

Passive Leader: Develops tasks
Genuine Leader: Develops individuals

The genuine leader will read into this e-mail that there was an implicit direction for him/her to take an active part in managing the task and ensuring the deliverable is done, correctly, and delivered on time. In their book The Truth About Leadership, The No-Fads, Heart-of-the-Matter Facts You Need to Know, James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner state that “Leaders either lead by example or they do not lead at all.”

Passive Leader: Only sees responsibility for a task when specifically directed to do it
Genuine Leader: Readily identifies responsibility without prompting and takes ownership of that responsibility and executes direction of it

I have always let my subordinates know that I didn’t want people who wanted to be sergeants. I want people who wanted to do sergeant work. I don’t want people who want to be lieutenants, I want people who want to do lieutenants work. There is a distinct and stark difference.

The rank device one’s collar does not represent their authority. Authority only comes from the trust and followership your subordinates grant TO you. The truth is we don’t need managers or supervisors. We need leaders, genuine leaders.

General George Patton once said, “Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” Leadership should never be about the title but about the performance or behavior that is expected of that position.

Passive Leader: Influence on subordinates is limited to their rank
Genuine Leader: Possesses skills and abilities to influence others to perform not based on the rank on their uniform but on the respect and recognition entrusted on them by the subordinates

Another causal factor for passive leadership is interestingly enough proficiency with one’s performance. Everyone has heard the old adage that complacency kills. I hold that proficiency kills as well. It is with that very proficiency that complacency arises. When one becomes so versed, so proficient, so skilled with a task it is inevitable that the task begins to become routine, automatic, and robotic even. Routine is another word for rut. The paradigm shift here is that at one point the outcome of doing a good job is doing a bad job.

One way to counter this is by setting term limits for some assignments. This will help to alleviate someone becoming a passive leader as a result of developing a great proficiency in one specific area, “pigeon holed” so to speak with a small scope of talent, vice the multipurpose and adaptable leader we all seek.

Passive Leader: Limited in skill set and in turn value to the organization
Genuine Leader: Very versatile in skill set and abilities

It would be great if you could assure yourself that you would never promote someone who had the propensity to be a passive leader. The best practice for every organization is to have a promotion process where only those who are genuine leaders are placed in leadership.

However there is no perfect promotional process, which can guarantee complete success with those chosen to be promoted. We should still strive to at least reach for the greatest success with these processes that we can obtain. We recently took a hard look at this within my organization and found we had a flaw with our process.

In closing, when you obtain a supervisory position you lose all rights and privileges to anonymity. You are expected to be a genuine leader and be forward looking, a problem solver, a seeker, a grower, and proactive.

I believe passive leadership will only be a lasting trend if left unaddressed but with changes in procedures, vision, and expectations it can be a quickly passing fad.

Passive Leader: A long lost trait of ineffective leaders of the past
Genuine Leader: The benchmark for all leaders of tomorrow

Sheriff Karl Leonard oversees one of the largest Sheriff Offices in Virginia with 430 square miles and a population of 330,000. The Chesterfield Sheriff’s Office is compiled of a force of almost 300 deputies and civilian employees with an annual budget in excess of $30M.

Prior to becoming Sheriff in 2014 he was with the Chesterfield Police Department for 30 years and served as Commander of Uniform Operations, Commander of Criminal Investigations among other assignments.  

Sheriff Leonard obtained his MA Degree in Criminal Justice from Virginia Commonwealth University and is a graduate of the FBI National Academy.

Sheriff Leonard, retired from the Coast Guard as a Captain and his military awards include the Joint Meritorious Service Medal, Department of Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Joint Chiefs of Staff Meritorious Service Medal, Coast Guard Meritorious Service Medal, Joint Service Commendation Medal, CG Commendation Medals, CG Achievement Medals, and Navy Achievement Medals.

(Photo courtesy Juan Beltran)