Surviving a Leadership Vacuum

Things don’t always turn out the way we plan.  Key people show up late, come down with the flu, miss the flight.  Suddenly there is a leadership vacuum.  People start to drift, time is lost, confusion and frustration set in.  Something needs to happen quickly to get things back on track.  Here’s a recent story about what happened when we suddenly found ourselves missing nearly all of our key leaders, and the three simple things you can do to bring order out of the resulting chaos.

leadership vacuum

Broken Eggs

Forty five minutes had gone by and we were still in the parking lot.  The trailer doors were yawning wide open, and a bewildering array of personal gear, camping equipment, food bags, and coolers lay scattered about.  Some of the boys were horsing around by a stand of trees, and I could hear one or two shifting equipment around in the back of the trailer.  This was taking forever – we needed to get on the road so we could arrive at the camp site in time to set up before the sun went down.

trailerAnd then somebody stepped on the egg carton and broke six eggs.  Can’t tell you why it was sitting on the ground in the first place, but it was; more time lost getting it cleaned up.

On the plus side, at the last minute we had several Scouts who weren’t able to attend, so losing the eggs wasn’t a problem – we were going to have plenty.

On the minus side, the boys who couldn’t make it were our senior leaders.  In fact, with one exception, for this weekend not a single boy would be functioning in his normal leadership role – everyone was new in his position.  And that was part of what was taking us so long to get packed up and on our way.

Fast forward to the next morning.  Despite a rainy night, everyone was up on time, the breakfast cooking competition was under way, and the patrol leaders and their teams had a fair grip on what they needed to do, and were actively doing it.

It was a world of difference from the way things started out.  What made the difference, and how did we progress to that point?  It all traced back to the first things our new leader did in the parking lot the night before, and you can sum it up in three words:  Organize, Orient, and Act.


As soon as you see there is a gap in leadership, you need to re-establish lines of authority and responsibility.  While we were still in the parking lot I pulled the senior boy aside to let him know he had to level up and lead the whole troop – he was not expecting this, but he willingly stepped up to the challenge.  Looking at the roster, he sorted out who would have to be in charge of each patrol, and called them over to discuss the situation.  They were surprised, too, but willing to take on the challenge.

Things started to get slowly better as the new Patrol Leaders tried to get a handle on their people and gear, but it was still taking a long time, and this is the point where we lost the eggs.  The sun was getting lower on the horizon.

To speed things up, our leader took another active step.  He gathered everyone together, announced the changes in leadership as well as who would be in charge of equipment, and who his second in command was.  Now, at least, people knew who was supposed to be in charge.

Situation in chaos? Make getting organized your top priority. Click To Tweet

Until you organize, as the leader, you are just dealing with a bunch of people who are either waiting around looking for direction, or starting to act on their own in ways that may, or may not, be helpful to the group’s goals.  The longer you wait to organize, the harder it will be to get everybody back on track and moving in the same direction.  Make getting organized your top priority.


After he organized the troop, our leader oriented them on what had to be done.  Our major goal of camping had not changed, but he had to lay out the intermediate goals and get the patrols focused on them.  He started with one simple task – getting the gear loaded – and gave clear instructions.  Put the troop gear into the trailer first, then the food, then the personal gear.  He also reviewed the time line and pointed out that we were “burning daylight” and that we needed to hustle to avoid setting up camp in the dark.  When he was done talking, everyone knew what had to be done and why it was important.

Need to establish order? Pick a simple but important task and focus people on getting it done. Click To Tweet

You should do the same as a leader, too.  After you are organized, get everyone oriented.  First, reaffirm the group’s goals, then pick a simple but important task, focus everyone’s efforts on getting done, help them to understand why it is important, and get them ready to do it.


Once they were organized and oriented, the troop was able to Act. It was easy for our leader to give his directions, but a little messier to execute them, since he had to show the new equipment guy what to do.  As the equipment guy gradually took over, the leader was able to step back and for the first time start to think ahead a little bit.  By the time the loading was done, he was ready to orient them on the next tasks.  He got an accurate count of who was present, gave the safety briefing, sorted out who would ride in which cars, and we were finally off.

Over the course of that first evening, the boys were progressively able to accomplish more and more under their own direction, like pitching tents, getting water, lighting lanterns.  By the time camp was set and the rest of the troop was munching on their evening cracker barrel snacks, the new leaders were meeting to plan and coordinate activities for the next day.  They had shifted from reacting to the current crisis, to anticipating what was coming and preparing for it, and that made all the difference.  By bed time, everyone in camp knew the plan for the next day and what part they would play in making it happen.

Leadership Vacuum – The Take-Aways

Leadership broken eggsWhen you are faced with a leadership vacuum, or suddenly find yourself thrust into a leadership role, realize that it is going to be a little messy at first – somebody’s going to step on some eggs.  But remain calm.  Soon, you will be able to go from the “react-to-crisis” mode into “proactive-Leader” mode if you take a deep breath, then Organize, Orient, and Act.

Two other points to make here.  First, notice the leadership style of the new leader.  In periods of confusion or when time is short, you need to take a more directive approach to get things sorted out and people moving.

Like our leader did, a good approach is to develop the game plan with a little help from your group of other leaders so that they will be on board with the plan and support you when it is time to act.  As your group gets organized, you can ratchet back your leadership style to be less directive as the situation permits.

The greater the confusion and chaos, the more directive #leadership needs to be. Click To Tweet

And second, here’s a helpful thing to keep in mind:  people want and expect leadership.  Back at the parking lot, the boys were playing around in the trees, but that’s not what they came there to do – they were there to go camping.  They were just killing time until their leaders stepped up and took charge.  So if it’s your turn in the hot seat, don’t be shy – get organized, get everyone oriented, and take some action!

People want and expect leadership; if you are in the hot seat, don't be shy! Click To Tweet


Thanks for reading; good luck leading!

Share your comments below. And be sure to sign up now for twice-monthly Leadership Updates with more tips and exclusive content not available elsewhere on the site!

Who else would enjoy this post?
About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

Related Posts
Welcome to the Team!
It's great to have you join us!
Ken Downer - Founder of RapidStart Leadership
Please check your email
to confirm (and get a gift)
Get the leadership tools to help
2x Month * Direct Email * No Spam

They are ready to follow...

...are you ready to lead?

lead your virtual team

Subscribe now