Organization & Leadership Consulting

Leadership Ghosts and their Cauldrons of Poison

Insecurity. That is almost always the reason your leadership ghost insists on haunting you. The ghost is massively insecure and he or she has an excessive need-to-be-needed that is being expressed in this junior high school fashion. But sometimes, in a rare few cases, the reason the ghost continues to haunt is much more nefarious.

In extreme cases, a former leader, what I refer to as a ‘leadership ghost’, continues to obsessively interact with their former organization because they are attempting to hold the lid on a cauldron of poison. It might be a secret, an illicit affair, a financial malfeasance or mismanagement, or even an undetected crime. In these rare, but not unknown cases, the goal of the ghost is to keep holding down that lid so that the poison inside the cauldron does not spill out. They hang around to try to distract their successor from discovering the cauldron and thus revealing its poisonous contents.

If you being haunted by your own leadership ghost, do not immediately leap to the conclusion that there is a secret stash of poison hiding somewhere. I would not want you to become a paranoid wreck over this remote possibility, nor would I want you to leap into making a baseless accusation. What I am saying however, is that the presence of a toxic, pernicious leadership ghost ought to set off the tiniest of alarms. Something just maybe, just might be amiss.

I have endured two such leadership ghosts in my career and have suspected a few more in my work as a consultant. In my experience, this is a most dangerous place for a leader to be in. The ghost has spent years cultivating a cadre of fierce defenders amongst their former colleagues. Expect those defenders to believe the word of the ghost to the last. If you are the one to spill the cauldron of poison and sound the alarm, then don’t expect to be hailed a hero. Far from it. You will surely be vilified as an unjust persecutor.

If you should find yourself in this most horrifying of circumstances, proceed with caution and with much counsel. You will need all the internal allies you can mobilize, along with all the outside help you can get, to keep that poison from destroying you too.


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