Loose Cannon Leaders
It was a moonless August night, and as the twenty or so lifeguards quietly shuffled back to their cabins, a solitary, lifeless young man lay on the shore of the lake. It was approximately 1 a.m.
As I pulled a towel over the counselors rigid body, the Camp Director, who had been watching from a distance, quietly approached. Expecting a compassionate hand-on-the-shoulder—a silent acknowledgment of the tragedy that lay before us—the shock of the Camp Director’s words barely registered. "How dare you let this happen on my watch!"
I stood in silence and stared, unmoved by his strained face.
Our late night search had been necessitated by a missing camp counselor who had last been seen at the lake. Our efforts had culminated in the discovery of Eddie Johnson.* Myself and another lifeguard had hauled him from the depths and now I stood there, beside Eddie, still shaking from the frigid water in which we had emerged.
Oblivious to the drowned young man at our feet, and the sheer horror of the moment, the Director stated flatly, ”This is unacceptable.” Then, as if adjourning an exasperating meeting, he spun and walked away, his words drifting off into the somber night.
As we learned later, Eddie had died an accidental death—a non-swimmer who inexplicably tried to swim—and the Director never spoke to me of the incident again.
And so began my illustrious journey into the world of shoddy leadership. It was 1998, and as a Recreation Manager for a large residential camp, I was unsettled by the behavior of the man leading our organization. He had exhibited an astonishing lack of compassion… and a colossal dose of, "This is all about me."
Unfortunately, his behavior would be duplicated by two more employers over the next 20-years of my career.
All who lead—myself included—carry a troublesome load of familial baggage, misguided intentions and managerial blindspots. But early in my career, the line had been clearly drawn between decent leader and loose cannon. Crossing that line meant ignoring two key components of good leadership: accountability and humility.
Enabled by a howitzer-sized construct of “I answer to no one”, and a smoldering fuse of insecure pride, these leaders literally blew up their organizations—leaving a wake of pummeled employees in their path. Unsurprisingly, it took a multitude of shattered careers and brave souls to eventually counter what I came to call, the “Loose Cannon Leadership Method” (LCLM).
The LCLM had an unmistakable, repeatable pattern:
Those responsible for hiring the leader (usually a Board of Directors) enabled his or her behavior by providing zero accountability.
The leader, left to their own devices and insecurities, developed a huge sense of entitlement and organizational arrogance (by default, they became Kings or Queens of their own personal domain).
As problems arose—mismanagement of resources, inappropriate behavior, dishonesty, threatening conduct, chaos—whistleblowers were labeled as disloyal, disgruntled employees, asked to leave or simply disparaged to the point of resignation.
The process of extracting the leader from his or her position of power was always protracted and ugly.
I believe it is safe to say none who practiced the LCLM began their careers thinking, “One day, I’m hoping to be a loose cannon leader.” Rather, they were slowly transformed by a culture of unchecked authority, an enabling audience and a proclivity towards insecurity.
In 2018, my wife and I, having lived and worked in these troubled leadership waters, decided to put our hard-won lessons to good use.
Circle-Back exists for three reasons:
To foster a work environment of integrity, humility and empowerment.
To help nonprofit organizations excel through experienced feedback
To cultivate first-class leadership.
You don’t have to be a loose cannon leader to need assistance! Top-notch organizations pursue feedback because they recognize it is essential to a thriving and successful work place.
* To protect the privacy of his family, Eddie Johnson is a fictitious name