Beware the Abyss of Passive Leadership

Beware the Abyss of Passive Leadership 


My experience engaging with Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs) has been a journey of navigating diverse leadership paradigms. I’ve worked with seasoned CMOs, who are decisive, are clear in their vision and execute accordingly, and the revenue shows it. 

I’ve also worked with first-time and less experienced CMOs, and those with a different approach.

In many cases, regardless of background or experience, I’ve seen passive leadership start to creep in and not have the best outcomes for organizations.

Here’s what I observed about it: this approach, paradoxically unassuming yet perilous, poses substantial long-term risks, especially within the delicate ecosystem of B2B tech companies.

In a high-velocity industry like ours, passive leadership, indecision, lack of direction, and an absence of strategy can leave businesses languishing in the shadows of their more strategically adept counterparts (Zenger & Folkman, 2019). In an analysis published in the Harvard Business Review, Zenger and Folkman (2019) emphasized the importance of “strategic speed” in ensuring the viability and competitiveness of an organization.

The dangers of passive leadership and indecision can manifest in several ways. Primarily, it undermines the organization’s ability to innovate and keep pace with the market, which is a crucial success factor in our rapidly evolving tech landscape (Gino, 2018). 

A study in the MIT Sloan Management Review corroborates this, asserting that companies who fail to make swift, clear decisions (and stick to them) in response to market changes risk irrelevance (Sull & Homkes, 2015).


Teams and High Performers Start to Suffer

The insidious effects of passive leadership extend beyond the corporate strategy and directly impinge upon the function and cohesion of the leader’s team. When leaders fail to exhibit assertive control, the enforcement of roles and responsibilities within the team often suffers significantly. In this landscape of indecisiveness, team members may feel that their roles are not clearly defined, leading to confusion and an ambiguous division of responsibilities (Chaudhuri & Bartol, 2014).

Moreover, lack of ownership is another offshoot of passive leadership. Teams led by passive leaders are less likely to take ownership of their tasks, viewing them as mere instructions rather than critical components of the bigger picture. Another typical side effect is not knowing who’s doing what, and the infamous problem of “too many cooks in the kitchen” can result as well. Ultimately for many, the drive to excel and innovate becomes secondary, leading to a lack of personal investment in tasks and a drop in overall productivity (Liu, Liao, & Loi, 2012).

High performers will also suffer and become disillusioned. 

Passive leadership also significantly impedes the growth and potential of high performers within the organization. High performers typically crave autonomy, a clear vision, strong decision-making, and the opportunity to take on challenging tasks. However, a passive leadership style often fails to provide this environment. The ambiguity and lack of clear direction can demotivate high performers, who thrive on clarity and purpose (Mawritz, Mayer, Hoobler, Wayne, & Marinova, 2012).

It’s not about “being comfortable with ambiguity”, either. I’ve found those who default on that statement are the one failing to take ownership and make commitments to a direction. Even if the wrong decisions are made, it’s better than no decision, as you can always course-correct.

Moreover, high performers often seek continuous feedback and guidance to improve and innovate, a process that passive leaders may neglect due to their hands-off approach (Zenger & Folkman, 2014). This lack of constructive feedback and mentorship can impede the professional growth and potential of these individuals.

Perhaps most critically, passive leadership styles tend to overlook the recognition and reward of high performance (Zenger & Folkman, 2014). In a passive leadership environment, high performers may feel undervalued, leading to decreased motivation, job satisfaction, and even attrition of your most valuable talent.

Therefore, the impact of passive leadership on high performers underlines another significant risk this leadership style poses to the vitality and competitiveness of an organization.

Finally, passive leadership often results in the delegation of critical decisions to team members without providing necessary guidance or parameters. The absence of proactive direction from leadership can leave employees feeling abandoned and unsupported, consequently impacting their performance and engagement (Kellerman, 2004).

Thus, it’s evident that passive leadership impacts not just the broader organizational strategy, but also the immediate team dynamics and efficiency, enforcing the need for proactive, assertive leadership at all levels.


No Focus = Road to Failure

Notably, the absence of a clear direction and a well-defined strategy leads to a diffusion of focus. When leaders don’t set a clear direction, it can create a vacuum that is often filled by conflicting priorities, ambiguity, and wasted resources (Reeves, Levin, & Ueda, 2016). The Boston Consulting Group, in its research, found that organizations with clear strategic objectives and consistent decision-making processes outperformed their competitors by almost 60% (Reeves, Levin, & Ueda, 2016).

Additionally, passive leadership adversely impacts the workforce. Forbes highlights the detrimental effects of passive leadership on employee morale and productivity. The ambiguity and indecision that come with passive leadership can lead to heightened stress, lower job satisfaction, and decreased productivity (Wartzman, 2017). 

On the contrary, proactive leaders who clearly communicate their vision and objectives tend to cultivate more motivated and engaged teams.

To summarize, the potential consequences of passive leadership in B2B tech startups are severe—ranging from stifled innovation and wasted resources to decreased morale and productivity. It is, therefore, incumbent upon us as leaders to foster a culture of decisive action, clear direction, and robust strategy.





  1. Gino, F. (2018). The business case for curiosity. Harvard Business Review, 96(5), 48–57.
  2. Reeves, M., Levin, S., & Ueda, D. (2016). The biology of corporate survival. Harvard Business Review, 94(1), 47–55.
  3. Sull, D., & Homkes, R. (2015). Why strategy execution unravels—and what to do about it. MIT Sloan Management Review, 56(3), 57–66.
  4. Wartzman, R. (2017). More than ever, workers want to know: What’s the point of my job? Forbes.
  5. Zenger, J., & Folkman, J. (2019). Research: The biggest culture gaps are within departments, not between them. Harvard Business Review.
  6. Mawritz, M. B., Mayer, D. M., Hoobler, J. M., Wayne, S. J., & Marinova, S. V. (2012). A trickle-down model of abusive supervision. Personnel Psychology, 65(2), 325–357.
  7. Zenger, J., & Folkman, J. (2014). The behaviors that define A-players. Harvard Business Review.
  8. Chaudhuri, S., & Bartol, K. M. (2014). The relationship of charismatic leadership and team performance: The moderating role of team psychological empowerment. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99(3), 617–627.
  9. Kellerman, B. (2004). Bad leadership: What it is, how it happens, why it matters. Harvard Business School Press.
  10. Liu, D., Liao, H., & Loi, R. (2012). The dark side of leadership: A three-level investigation of the cascading effect of abusive supervision on employee creativity. Academy of Management Journal, 55(5), 1187–1212.