When the “Crazy Uncle” is in Charge

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We all know about the crazy uncle. He’s the one who shows up drunk at Christmas and then disappears for three months. He’s the one who pulls up out front in a mobile home and wants to borrow an electrical extension cord. He’s the one who tells the same long stories again and again even though they weren’t interesting the first time. Some of us have that uncle and some of us just know of him through movies and TV. But what if the “crazy uncle” is running the organization? It can be a problem.

The crazy uncle in charge will be out of touch with what is really going on in the organization, like Nero fiddling while Rome burned. He will discuss his vision for the future while the company is running out of money. He will say things are great when everyone knows they are not. 

Crazy uncles like to talk about the old days citing times “when I was at Intel” or any other company that is more successful than the current one. Steve Jobs comparisons are often used although the comparisons don’t apply. The uncle also uses metaphors even when they don’t work or make sense either. When the uncle says, “This is our Kodak Moment”, everyone wonders if they should snap a photo or the company is filing for bankruptcy.  

There are many issues when the crazy uncle is in charge but maybe the worst is that, as the leader, he will have lost credibility and be ignored. Instead of driving change and rallying the organization, people will tune out to his messages. Nothing changes when change is probably needed the most.

Although the crazy uncle is not mean, when others try to help him or even protect him from himself, he won’t like it and will lash out creating even more damage. If the uncle makes a mistake he will say, “sorry about that” and move on leaving the wreckage behind him with no plan for repairs.

Put it all together and the crazy uncle in charge makes for a leader who is ignored and creates a void at the top when leadership is most needed.

You see it happening, what’s to do? As always, there are career choices…

  • Ignore him and hope that other senior leaders are aware and filling the void.
  • Wait and hope that some one with sense will intervene. Or, talk to others and do an intervention before it’s too late. Very risky. 
  • If you enjoy your job, keep your head low and just stay out of his way.  Create workarounds. Keep him out of everything you do to be successful.

Usually the crazy uncle surrounds himself with like thinkers and you may be dealing with an entire team of out of touch crazy uncles. In rare cases the uncle might come to his senses and let go of the leadership reins. 

Don’t confuse characters with crazy uncles. Elon Musk is a character and Richard Branson is a character. They are not crazy uncles and are working their style into the organizations success. Crazy uncles are different.

The uncle almost always makes the place more interesting, but not necessarily more successful.

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