Do you ever wonder how past leaders could have missed what seems so obvious in hindsight? Sadly, most leaders live in an environment that makes them vulnerable to managerial failure. The problem lies in a little-recognized reality of leadership: isolation. Leading can be lonely. Typically leaders have few, if any, high-trust relationships at work. Because leaders have the power to make or break the careers of those around them, people are afraid to be honest with them and challenge their thinking. Likewise, too often leaders are reluctant to let their guard down out of fear of losing the respect of their colleagues.
The consequence of this mutual fear to fully communicate is that it creates what I describe as Knowledge Traps -- barriers that prevent leaders from hearing potentially valuable information. Today’s world is too complex for leaders to think they can make superior decisions without the benefit of the knowledge held by members of their community who are closer to the front lines. When leaders are isolated from the candid dialogue that helps produce the best decisions, that isolation makes them more vulnerable to hubris and rationalization. If leaders only hear the good news that people think they want to hear, they will believe that all is well (as the emperor with no clothes did)…when in reality it is not. And of course, the undisclosed negatives will eventually come to the surface, usually when it’s more difficult to deal with them.
The isolation of leaders, with its adverse effect on decision-making, is one reason why the French political philosopher Montesquieu recommended the separation of powers, and checks and balances in government in his 1748 masterpiece The Spirit of the Laws. His solution to the pitfalls of power was embraced by America’s Founders and has since become a part of the structure of democratic governments worldwide.
In corporations, independent directors provide a check on the CEO’s power. That’s not enough, though. There are important practices that can be put in place to protect leaders at every level from the danger of isolation. All leaders should have trusted people in their lives who will provide the open dialogue and constructive confrontation required to sharpen and check their thinking. Ideally, they should have a minimum of one high-trust relationship inside their organization and one outside. This will allow them to create an inner circle with whom to grow in life and in leadership.
Additionally, leaders must develop the habit of actively seeking broad input and considering the feedback they receive before making important decisions. Implementing these practices throughout an organization – developing high-trust relationships and broadly seeking relevant knowledge before making important decisions – will help to eliminate Knowledge Traps and restore the healthy Knowledge Flow that every organization needs to make optimal decisions.
There is a new breed of leader emerging today: the leader who is accountable and growing through the power of community. The younger generations aren’t looking for know-it-all bosses. They are looking to be inspired by leaders who are growing and who encourage others to follow their example. Do you have high-trust relationships? If you don’t, take a moment to call and schedule a time to meet with someone who could be in your inner circle. It is a leadership best practice that will benefit you and the people you lead.
Michael Lee Stallard speaks, teaches and writes about leadership, employee engagement, productivity and innovation at leading organizations including Google, GE, NASA, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics and the Darden Graduate School of Business at the University of Virginia. Most recently, Michael and his colleague Jason Pankau filmed a 90-minute program for Linkage's Thought Leaders Series that will be released in January of 2010. Michael wrote the guest editorial for Talent Management magazine's January 2010 edition and last month his article on how the force of connection boosts productivity and innovation was featured as the lead article in the UK's Developing HR Strategy Journal. Click on these links to learn more about Michael and Jason in the media and their speaking engagements.
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I love this premise Michael-- It reminds me of the 17th verse from the Tao Te Ching on Leadership. Thank you for this reminder and nudge-- So so important! :+) RR
The 17th Verse of the Tao:
With the greatest leader above them,
people barely know one exists.
Next comes one whom they love and praise.
Next comes one who they fear.
Next comes one whom they despise and defy.
When a leader trusts no one,
no one trusts him.
The great leader speaks little.
He never speaks carelessly.
He works without self interest and leaves no trace.
When all is finished, the people say, "We did it ourselves."
- Tao Te Ching
Rena M. Reese 1276 days ago