[June 26, 2015] In 1978 I saw the comedy National Lampoon’s Animal House starring John Belushi who, with his friends, joins the worst fraternity on their college campus. I’m reminded of the movie’s college dean who is an insulated leader and not very ineffective when it came to dealing with the antics of John Belushi and problems with that particular fraternity.
A charge regularly leveled at senior political and military leaders is that they are insulated from the reality of their organization and consequently are not as effective as they could be. While all leaders have some degree of insulation due to the administrative and bureaucratic nature of organizations, unless the leader makes the effort to cut through the maze of leadership they will be insulated against much of the day-to-day operations that is important for them to be successful.
People who work in any organization immediately know if their boss is an insulated leader. They can tell for several reasons. The leader:
- Is unable to recognize what is important from what is trivial.
- Lacks effective feedback and fails to act on bottom-up information.
- Is unable to distinguish reporting from reality since there is a reliance on gatekeepers for information.
- Does not understand the second and third order effects of their decisions.
- Does not communicate clearly and unequivocally.
- Is trapped by organizational culture, its bureaucracy, and a inward-looking staff
- Is often quick to judge and make decisions.
There is not a senior leader I know that hasn’t struggled with the fear that they somehow are insulated too much from those who work for them. Each has their own set of techniques – those personal habits – that helps keep them in touch with the reality of what’s going on with the people and their work. Furthermore, the higher in an organization the greater the tendency for insulation of that leader to occur.
I was particular impressed with the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army General Ray Odierno, who was constantly traveling throughout his command to speak with the common soldier. This was his way of overcoming the insulation of well-meaning staff members who try to protect him from the many who want to see him.
Fortunately, Odierno and the many senior military and business leaders I’ve known, have all managed to keep themselves abreast of those things that matter. They are what I call … great leaders, for they have the special touch that it takes to stay informed through simply being there for their men and women.
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