Great leaders don’t tell you what to do…they show you how it’s done”
[su_dropcap style=”flat”]I[/su_dropcap] SPENT THE SUMMER between high school and my freshmen year in college working at my hometown’s only significant employer; the envelope plant. It was common that the children of current employees worked at the plant during their college summers. (The concept of nepotism in this small town in 1990 was quite foreign.) The building was a two hundred thousand square foot factory that produced good old fashioned, standard white mailing envelopes; some printed, some plain, but millions of them a month. Not those fancy self-adhesive kind. No, these babies were guaranteed to induce paper cuts to the tongue that would bring tears to the toughest of men.
My dad grew up in this town, dropped out of high school to join the Marines, and when he returned, he took a job at that envelope plant and worked there the remainder of his life. After twenty-five years working various line-level jobs, he was promoted to a shift supervisor role. Although he never boasted about the achievement, I knew he was proud, and we were proud of him. During the aforementioned summer I worked there, my dad would often (and not so covertly) drift near my envelope packing station to ensure I wasn’t slacking or sneaking the use of my ‘illegal’ Walkman. One day, content that I was working hard with no distractions, he turned to walk away to search for his next target. As he turned, I was compelled to yell “Hey, don’t you have anything better to do?” But in a much wiser and safer decision I bellowed out “Hey, why aren’t you ever in the office with the other supervisors? “
His simple, but poignant response? “How can I lead if I don’t know what the hell is going on.”
My dad was a man of few words. He wasn’t a philosopher or thought leader. He didn’t have a high school diploma or college degree, but he was a man who knew what leadership meant. Not because of what he said, but because of how he acted. He led by example and never asked anybody to do something he wouldn’t do himself. That’s something that’s stayed with me my entire life and it’s a quality I strive to attain everyday as a leader.
How can I lead if I don’t know what the hell is going on”
The Ivory Tower Syndrome.
Most of us have heard the expression, ‘the ivory tower.’ In our professional lives, the context usually describes the boss or upper management perched in an office somewhere, unaware and ignorant of the demands and challenges that their employees are facing. It’s obvious to most that you cannot lead from this horrible place, so why do some leaders reside in the ivory tower?
The ivory tower is comfortable. It’s safe and reassuring. Managers in the ivory tower pat each other on the back and tell one another how great they are. They pride themselves on focusing on the “big” and “strategic” picture, yet are so far disconnected from reality they’ve lost focus on what’s relevant and important.
The ivory tower is a great place to hide. It hides incompetence, inability, and inexperience. For some leaders, it’s easier to hide in the office all day ‘pretending’ to lead, versus admitting a lack of knowledge, understanding, or ability. That takes humility and courage, and unfortunately, many leaders just don’t possess that.
Too often, ineffective leaders isolate themselves from the day-to-day activity of their business and risk losing touch with their employees, their customers, and even the company’s mission. Isolation is ignorance and it ultimately ends in failure. Just because you don’t like what you hear or see doesn’t mean you should run and hide from it.
Organizational excellence begins with creating an engaged and empowered workforce. The existence of ivory towers within the organization is one of the greatest impediments to creating and sustaining a culture of engagement. Ivory towers can be built and inhabited at any level of supervision or management. As leaders we need to identify if this syndrome exists in our organization, and if it does; destroy it. Although there will be resistance and casualties, the alternative is far more damaging.
One last suggestion about creating a culture of employee engagement. It’s recently very fashionable and popular to conduct employee engagement surveys. Heck, it’s so easy, you can take the survey on your mobile phone in between Instagram updates. Unfortunately, when results are poor and the organization fails to follow through with a concrete plan of action, the problem is exacerbated.
I tend to keep things pretty simple and my advice is this:
If you want everyone on the same page, put the page in front of them. How do you expect your employees to embrace a mission or culture that they don’t see or have any input on? How in the world can managers know what their people need and want without asking them? Oh, and don’t rely exclusively on employee engagement surveys. Ask them through genuine and direct conversation.