By Chris Cannon

On the polar extremes of executive accountability, there sit two types of leaders. You’ve got your micromanager (who won’t leave the room and let you do your job), and you’ve got your absentee boss (who rarely enters the room and doesn’t understand your job).

Hiding in plain sight is the productivity-draining chimera of these two leadership styles: parachute leaders. Similar to “Parachute Journalism” – the discredited practice of dropping Western reporters into unfamiliar terrain, incapable of understanding the local angle – parachute leaders combine the meddling nature of a micromanager with the uninformed opinions of an absentee boss.

 

Parachute Leadership

 

Every manager needs to get involved from time to time. We have to synchronize company activity and timelines, or simply intervene when a team has gone off the rails.  But the danger of parachute leadership is that every status update meeting becomes an intervention with a laundry list of unsolicited, unformed advice.

The danger of parachute leadership is that every status update meeting becomes an intervention with a laundry list of unsolicited, unformed advice. Share on X

Teams need support and guidance, but they don’t need to be told how to do their jobs. We should give them a direction to go, but not dictate which foot to start walking with. Good managers know when to run the team, when to stay informed, and when to step back and let a high-performing team work its magic.

Are you a parachute leader?

There’s nothing wrong with taking a hands-off approach to a team, and just checking in from time to time to ask for a status update or offer some can help. But if we are not directly managing the project – or we are choosing to delegate some of our management responsibilities – then we need to align our input with the role we’ve created for ourself, making sure we maintain a careful balance between the questions we ask and the opinions we give.

  • Wanting to know how long something is going to take is a reasonable request. We need to be kept up on the timeline so we can manage expectations and align the project with our broader goals. But are we asking the team to let us know where they are on the timeline, or are we pressuring them to move faster and cut corners?
  • Wanting to know the ROI on a project is a reasonable request. We need to account for our resource allocation and understand the probability of useful output. But are we measuring that probability, or are we unintentionally pressuring our team to paint a rosier forecast by our mere presence?
  • Wanting to know what progress has been made is a reasonable request. We need to generally stay informed and involved, understanding the team’s progress towards project goals and assessing the need for adjustments or course corrections. But are we getting a true read on the project, or are we looking at it through management-colored glasses?

The problem is often simply that the manager has done that job before, so they bring all kinds of assumptions into the room. They may have 20 years of experience in every position of every team member. So it’s understandable when we want to show the youngsters “how it’s done,” but if we don’t want to be parachute leaders, we need to let them run their own show.

Why we shouldn’t do that

Unless a project is already a disaster unfolding, teams don’t need heroes dropping in from the sky. Input from management should be informed and helpful, or it can drag a team down from multiple angles.

  • Productivity. A lack of understanding can wreak havoc on a project timeline, misaligning resources and hampering priorities. Giving direction without understanding a project’s full context sows confusion and slows down the process.
  • Task Management. If you don’t fully understand a project’s scope and complexity, even simple input can inadvertently cause ripple effects in areas such as task assignment and prioritization, hindering effective coordination and collaboration across team members or departments.
  • Delays. These Productivity and Task Management issues generate knock-on effects that either reduce quality or delay a project – often both. Unrealistic expectations for quick results without understanding the project’s intricacies is a recipe for rushed decisions and overlooked details. All projects have dependencies, and just one ill-timed ripple in the Task Management space can create a bottleneck and put your project in a holding pattern.
  • Morale. Pretty obvious. Unrealistic expectations and lack of appreciation for a project’s complexities can make a team feel undervalued or misunderstood. Input – even questions – that reveal a barely casual interest of the project can demotivate and frustrate team members who are working nights and weekends to make their mark.

How to avoid parachute leadership

Leaders should invest time in understanding the work of their team members. Regular employee discovery sessions [talk to your team!] help leaders gain insights into individual roles, projects, and challenges their team members face. This not only provides a more nuanced picture of the project, but fosters a culture of learning and appreciation for the expertise and contributions of each person.

Encouraging two-way communication with our team members helps foster open and transparent dialogue, creating a sense of engagement and collaboration among our team. Take time to pair or schedule 1:1s with individual team members where they can feel free to bat some ideas around the room with you.

If you run a large organization, invest in executive professional development – particularly training in how to lead in a culture of innovation, which requires greater flexibility and a broad understanding of how moving parts interact in a complex system. Provide opportunities for your team leaders to broaden their understanding of different areas of the organization, and offer them training on effective communication, team management, and fostering innovation.

Lastly, trust your team. Recruit great people and then give them the freedom to be great. If you find capable workers who align with your organization’s values and goals, you can delegate authority and decision-making power, showing trust in their abilities and allowing them to take ownership of their work.

Lessons Learned

  • Be helpful, but don’t derail your team’s work
  • Stay informed without causing interference
  • Show your team members they are trusted and valued

Special thanks to Megan Kennedy and Tristan Kromer for reviewing and giving feedback on this post.

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