The Coward Leader

This is a guest blog post by my husband and business partner, Joe Anderson.


I’m a retired Marine officer and have served in a senior leadership role in several Fortune 500 companies.  I’ve seen my share of “coward leaders”…I’ve even worked for a few.

chicken27The dictionary defines the word coward, when used as a noun, as “a person who lacks courage in facing danger, difficulty, opposition, pain, etc.; a timid or easily intimidated person.”

There have been a few articles written about the coward leader…several even give a listing of “signs of a coward leader” and all of them are accurate to a point.  The business world is full of coward leaders; as is the government.  Of all the factors that are used to describe a coward leader such as “always taking the easy way out” and/or “always blaming others”, the one element of the coward leader that isn’t mentioned is the basic character flaw of not having the guts to look you in the eye and being honest with you. They will try to find any way they can to avoid dealing with tough issues.  Coward leaders are scared people, refusing to confront at all costs…they’ll lie, cheat and or screw anyone they can to avoid being accountable for anything.

Coward leaders are in every organization, at every level of an organization, from the first line supervisor to the company president; government bureaucrats to elected officials….they’re out there…they’re everywhere… like an insidious disease; they corrupt employee morale, destroy organization trust and threaten the very life of an organization. Working for one is probably one of the most discouraging experiences one can have.

True story….an employee of a small service company recently wrote to me asking for advice.  He had been asked to assume a management role in the company he worked for.  He was already fully engaged as with his day to day work but was excited to be promoted to “company management” and some extra money…well, not quite…his boss told him that they wanted him work in the role for a while then they would consider a raise….first red flag.

So, he’s been working 12-14 hour work days in the office, working at home at night and weekends, doing both jobs thinking all the while that he was doing a good job and there was a raise waiting for him.

About three weeks ago, his boss hired an old friend but no one was really sure why he was hired. It soon became apparent when his boss sent him an email stating that his “old friend” would be taking over the management responsibilities he had been assigned and that his friend would be meeting with him the next morning to discuss all the ongoing projects.  Note….I said he told him in an email… he wouldn’t look him in the eye and be honest with him….a classic example of a coward leader.

There is no easy answer on how to deal with the coward leader, particularly for an employee.  My guidance to the employee was…you have four choices and with each choice come consequences.
• You can confront your boss in which case he may well fire you
• You can do nothing…which means you accept his coward leadership
• You can  resign which means you need to find another job quickly but “you showed him” or
• You can start a serious job search, find the best job for you and then resign.

My recommendation was to go with the last option….I’m not certain which one he will take – all of them take courage.

I’ve had a lot of success as a leader by removing any filters between me and the employees.  I spent time with them, sitting at their desks, talking to them about their job, their family and their work environment.  I make a point to look them in the eye and ask them to do the same.  That has helped me to build a trust level with the employees where they felt comfortable they could give me the “straight scoop” and if there were legitimate issues such as “coward leaders”, they knew I would deal with them.

4 thoughts on “The Coward Leader”

  1. I can think of a fifth or sixth choice.. 😉
    Good article Joe. Cowards are out there and their bosses should be held accountable. I agree with your recommendation to start a job search. Those jerks don’t change.

  2. Thanks for the feedback and I agree with your observations that bosses need to be held accountable for weeding these yokels out and yep,, I had a few more options in mind also…just didn’t say them.

  3. Excellent points Sir, definitely spot on. I have witnessed first-hand the ineffectiveness of coward leaders. It is an unfortunate sight, as I have seen these ‘leaders’ lose a great deal of talent due to their lack of communication, resolve and lack of internal fortitude to stand up for what’s right. With that said, option 4 is the one I would suggest the gentleman chooses. Take this experience as a learning opportunity and vow to not allow himself to be ‘taken for a ride’ in the future.

    Thanks again for posting!
    – Semper Fidelis

  4. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. The quality of talent that a company loses because of coward leaders and the impact that has on the company, both financially and operationally, is significant. A very insightful person wrote in another article I recently read (I don’t recall the author’s name) , “employees don’t leave because of their company, they leave because of their supervisor” and I suspect that’s true in most cases. Again, thanks for your comments. Semper Fi. Joe

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