Smelling smoke? Is it coming from another leader?

Have you ever caught a whiff of a smoky haze coming from down the hall? …The kind that indicates something is not quite right?

Occasionally a fire alarm even goes off, but it is quickly silenced.

…But if you follow your nose the smoke gets thicker around another titled leader’s door.

Yes – I’m asking about a titled leader that may be a level or two below you, may be your direct report, your peer or even your boss.    

  • The one that can be charming and charismatic.
  • The one that you go to lunch with.
  • The one that has so many right words to say when you smell the smoke, that you begin to dismiss the truth that smoke has a source.

True stories below:

A high-potential employee with great people skills and a strong work ethic is constantly promoted within a company for more than a decade.

When he is promoted again he can’t get the tools and support he needs and begins to struggle. He’s not a quitter and doesn’t know how to fail, so he sacrifices all of his vacation and family time and works instead.

But no matter how many hours he puts in, he is treated as if he is the problem and eventually fired.

Then another high potential/long-term employee is relocated to take the same role, in the same place, with the same leader, in the same environment.

And the cycle begins again…


A new leader is hired and immediately this person’s direct reports began to catch her in a series of lies.

When they try to address their concerns with the next level of leadership, their new leader is informed.

Behind the scenes – The new leader retaliates and threatens individual jobs. And then begins to manipulate individuals in one-on-one conversations that are intended to take the focus off of her and redirect it to each other.  Strategically planted questions begin to sow seeds of doubt about the people they’ve worked with for years… “Do you think so and so is ________?”   (You fill in the blank.)

…Soon a team that once felt secure and stood together is filled with fear and insecurity. They no longer feel supported by their manager, or the chain of command, or each other. Their focus changes from US to ME and their morale begins to tank.

Would you begin to smell the smoke or see the haze?

Unfortunately the new leader is able to keep anyone from noticing the fire that is growing for a time, because the individuals on the team have high personal standards and the previous momentum they had is heping them meet their objectives temporarily.

If you followed the haze and practiced any degree of fire prevention, you would quickly notice that this leader is frequently tardy and absent from work (physically and mentally) and continually violating company policies and ethics when she is there.

However, because no one sniffed out the cause of the haze, results declined and ethics violations grew in both volume and intensity until the fire became so large it could no longer be ignored.

Character-based leaders make courageous choices to investigate smoke and to fight fires.

They care for individual lives and for the organization they serve.

They protect results, limit risk and fuel:

  • Employee Morale, Engagement Performance
  • Customer & Employee Retention

Want more?  

If you’re the employee:

If you are on a team of employees:

If you’re in HR, you office down the hall or if you are the boss:

Image Credit: iStock

President, Giana Consulting

Chery believes that:
• Anyone can be a leader.
• Everyone knows something that the rest of us don’t.
• We all need to leave our workplaces, communities, nation and world – better than we found them.

Those beliefs caused her to instigate change from every position she ever had and continually provided opportunities to lead system-wide change from the middle and the edge of organizations.

Her faith and my firm belief that leaders need to walk their talk were the reasons she agreed to move to a part of the world that she once feared. As an expat she embraced daily opportunities to meet and learn from people that represent the nations in our world.

Today Chery is The Founder of Giana Consulting, listed as a Great Leadership Speaker by Inc., writes a recognized leadership blog and has co-authored two leadership books.

She leverages true leadership stories and expat experiences to inform, inspire and emphasize life skills that cause her clients to be more energized and productive.

THANK YOU for commenting and sharing!

YOU ARE INVITED: To add your comments and to share your professional, personal and faith-based stories. Diverse opinions, compassion, and inspiration are welcome! (I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.)

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10 thoughts on “Smelling smoke? Is it coming from another leader?

  1. You’d think most people would notice the smoke… eventually. I was just talking to a client who’s struggling because there is a senior person who is cruel, unethical and simply terrible to her peers but really great at kissing the you know what of the people above her. People in the division are struggling, sinking and dread every time they know they’re going to be undermined by this person. Somehow, senior leaders continue to give her new opportunities. My client and I wondered when the senior leaders would start to pick up on the smoke that everyone else is choking on…

    Great post, Chery!

    • Hi Alli! It is so sad that so many people choke on this issue! Hopefully those that have been on the receiving end of this situation will one day be wiser and more compassionate senior leaders because of it.

  2. I love the metaphor of the smoke and fire Chery as it evokes a sense of urgency and action!

    Unfortunately it is sometimes difficult to convince senior leaders that there may be bad leadership leading the team. I know of a director in a hospital who is constantly fearful of losing his job if he speaks up against his boss. As a result, he tends to work around him. Politics can be very powerful in organizations and leaders need to collect all their data and gather all their support before sharing the smokey truth.

    Thanks for a terrific post and a critical dialogue to begin, Chery!

    • Ahh Terri – You bring up a hard truth… Politics! And Kenny Roger’s lyrics run through my mind as I think of the strategy involved in dealing with a smoke smelling leader that is your boss, “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away and know when to run!!!”

  3. What a difficult situation this is Chery. As a metaphor if the source is not extinguished the whole enterprise is doomed…if left alone there is nothing worse than the longevity of smoky smelly hair and clothes. May I offer for consideration the MYCASKI approach. If leaders adopt and practice this mindset the situation will become calmed and all that believe will benefit for the common good. I believe that those who do not, will witness the transformation around them and adopt MYCASKI accordingly or will actually see they do not fit and leave. In reality my observations are everybody benefits and performance improves. Please feel free to use and share the MYCASKI reminder with your network. Best Regards Raymond http://www.mycaski.com

  4. Great article Chery. It has been my experience, unfortunately, that most presidents, CEO’s, and owners of companies are too quick to take their managers at their word. If the top leaders of companies would give their low-level employees the benefit of the doubt more often, to at least investigate the situation with an open mind, it would be much more difficult for middle-managers to manipulate their people and abuse their positions.

    This is why people like you and me do what we do: to help mediocre managers develop into great servant leaders.
    God bless