leadership tips - the ceo magazine
John O. Alizor Phd

In every company there is at least one employee that feels that he or she knows more than the boss and everyone else.

I have always wrestled with how the bosses deal with the unleadables, specifically if they are top producers when it comes to the bottom line. Let me introduce to you Marywise, a top producer in a global financial company. She earns six figures in salary, bonuses, and commission. 

Everyone in her company, including the boss, comes to her for answers to questions that no one else is capable of answering.  On the surface, she seems to be the type of employee that you would want on your team. Not really, not if you don’t have the skill to manager her behavior.   

Marywise is not easy to manage, not even a seasoned manager could manage her. Marywise’s coworkers always complain that she does not want to work with them. Marywise responded to every complaint, “I am doing more than my share because my coworkers are not doing their shares.” Or she would say, “I am the only one, in this company, that knows what to do."   

When asked, “What can you do to change the situation?” She responds, “Don’t ask me; ask the boss, he is not even qualified for his job.”Her response showed that she was unhappy with her position in the company. Remember that other employees may be feeling the same way, but lack the courage to speak out or simply because they fear repercussions from you.  

As the boss, you don’t want to lead your organization with fear because it can only be successful for a short time. Eventually your talented workers will leave your company for other companies that welcome new ideas and are open. 

If you find yourself in a situation with an unleadable, it is wise to seek to understand their discontentment source, and find a way to resolve it rather than firing the unleadable. 

Rather than becoming defensive, you can acknowledge his or her concerns.  You can say, “If I hear you correctly, you are telling me that….” Show that you care by making one positive comment about their complaint. If you cannot find one, it is all right to make up one.

By so doing, you create a work environment in which workers can freely express their opinions to you. Ask, “What would you do different, if given the power to effect a change?”   Listen carefully, and acknowledge the response, then ask, “What is one thing that you like about this organization?” 

Characteristics of employees that appear "unleadable":  

  • Know- it-all attitude.
  • Irrelevant questions to unrelated topic during staff meetings.
  • Unengaged during staff meetings.
  • Distraction conversations with a coworker during staff meetings.
  • Resists working with coworkers.
  • Withholds special skills from his or her team.
  • Constant complaint over a perceived injustice.
  • Complains about boss’s incompetency.
  • Mindset on how company ought to function.
  • Blames coworkers for not doing enough.

Firing or isolating the unleadables is not the right things to do because unleadables enable us to reassess our leadership styles. They tend to possess intellectual assets that can add value to our companies; hence it is essential to probe for understanding rather than firing them. If you run an organization without welcoming opposing ideas, you are not going to sustain your success very long.

About the Author

John O. Alizor, Ph.D., currently runs workshops and seminars on leadership as the founder and president of John Alizor, Ph.D., Leadership Forensics Business Consulting, Inc. He has an extensive educational background and multiple business leadership roles including making his first million dollars as the head of a manufacturing company. He is sharing his leadership for business expertise in a new guidebook titled “Leadership: Understanding Theory, Style and Practice.”

He is available at:

jalizor@DrAlizorLeadership.com or (562) 628-5570


Martin's picture
You have a very valid point here. Several of my employees have challenged me with behavioral issues in the course of my career. I have only had to let one go and the rest have been invaluable to my team. For me the best course of action was to make each individual feel like they were almost irreplaceable and valued, while leading them to believe that the majority of their tasks were of their own design.
Jennifer Corob's picture
It is very important to show understanding towards "unleadables" and see how they are feeling, so you can work with them to help them work better with their team. Some "unleadables" may genuinely feel they aren't getting any support from their coworkers or managers, so reaching out to them is the first step to reminding them they do have coworkers who want to support them and work with them as a team.
Aimée Smith's picture
Have you ever stopped to think what makes a person an "unleadable"? Maybe there's something that management and other staff could have done to prevent that attitude from forming in a person. Teamwork and open communication should definitely be emphasized from the very start, so no one disconnects from the group and decides they can't depend on their team.

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