Overcoming the Isolation of Leadership
It’s lonely at the top, as the old saying goes. It can also be extremely isolating.
Corporate CEOs and other senior leaders are usually surrounded by necessary gatekeepers such as chiefs of staff, advisors, executive assistants, schedulers and other assorted hangers-on. All these handlers are responsible for managing the boss’s precious time and helping set priorities at the top.
All too often, these same guardians tend to safeguard the leader from unpleasant facts or uncomfortable truths. In addition, many followers show a natural deference to authority which causes them to withhold their real opinions or stifle any comments that could contradict the boss’s view – even when such unvarnished feedback is what the leader really needs to hear.
Another root cause of leadership isolation stems from the seductive nature of power itself. Over time, leaders can get pampered within a cocoon of enormous salaries and lavish perks including the finest offices, the fanciest cars, first-class travel and the most luxurious accommodations. It can be easy to get lulled into a false sense of security about the strength of the business when one is surrounded by circles of “yes men” who try to anticipate the boss’s every need.
Unfortunately, shielding the boss from organizational problems or filtering out critical information is not the best strategy for success. In fact, it’s hard enough making tough decisions when armed with complete data, but it’s almost impossible to do so when the nitty-gritty details have been omitted.
Leaders can take a variety of approaches to free themselves from the bubble of isolation. Classic town hall style meetings provide a chance for employees from all levels to air their suggestions and grievances. Skip-level meetings are also a good way for leaders to interact directly with people in the trenches, bypassing the influence of an employee’s direct supervisors.
Management by walking around (MBWA) is another time-honored tradition for managers to get out of their corner offices and engage directly with the troops on the front lines about problems involving design, engineering, production, service, sales, or marketing. Anonymous crowdsourcing sessions
provide another highly effective approach to gather the insights of the teams doing the actual work.
The best overall strategy for overcoming isolation starts by encouraging honest feedback from followers and creating a general culture of openness. It’s helpful for leaders to examine the thinking and motivations behind the statements and questions posed by their followers, according to Jay Steven Levin, an executive coach writing a post on CEO.com
“Ask more. Tell less. Observe more. React less,” Levin advises. “Breathe through your impatient need to jump in.”
Levin adds that getting straight talk and creating a climate of openness helps to puncture the isolation bubble. It also helps to exercise self-restraint and stay engaged, rather than by issuing constant demands. Leadership isolation will dissolve and employee performance will increase for leaders who make a conscious decision to encourage their employees to be motivated by self-control, rather than by fear.