When Indispensability Is a Career Killer

Sometimes, being indispensable is bad for your career.

Why? If your boss can’t imagine life without you, then you’re in a dangerous place. “Such an employee may not be groomed for career advancement, but rather incented to stay put,” warns Dawn Klingensmith in the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Perhaps an employee is like his or her right arm and it’s hard to imagine a replacement. But sometimes, when an employee moves on, the departure reveals the boss’s ineptitude.”

The way to avoid what one of Klingensmith’s sources calls “second-lieutenant syndrome” is either to find ways to make sure your boss grooms you for a better job—or take a different position. “Ultimately, a job change may be the only way to get out from under the boss’s thumb,” Klingensmith concludes. “In the next job, the employee should work on becoming indispensable not to his or her immediate supervisor but to the organization as a whole.”

Peter Drucker would have agreed, and he stressed that being a right-hand man or woman is no good over the long term. “Work as a lieutenant or assistant does not adequately prepare a man for the pressures of making his own decisions,” he wrote in The Practice of Management. “On the contrary, nothing is more common than the trusted and effective lieutenant who collapses when he is put on his own.” For that reason, a promising young employee “must be tested in his capacity to manage a whole business effectively”—and “long before he gets to the top.”

Photo credit: Kalense Kid
Photo credit: Kalense Kid

But Drucker would have gone even further than Klingensmith, for he felt it was not only a subordinate’s responsibility to leave a clingy boss but also an executive’s responsibility to break up such relationships promptly. Drucker explained in People and Performance that effective executives must be on the lookout for any supervisor who says that “Jack Jones” is indispensable.

“They have learned that there are only three explanations for an ‘indispensable’ person like Jack Jones,” Drucker wrote. “He is actually incompetent and can survive only if he his carefully shielded from demands; his strength is misused to bolster a weak superior; or his strength is misused to delay tackling a serious problem, if not to conceal its existence.”

Drucker added: “In every one of these situations, the ‘indispensable person’ should be moved—and soon. Otherwise one only destroys whatever strengths he may have.”

Have you ever seen an employee become “indispensable” in the wrong sort of way? What happened?