The Danger of a Leader-in-a-Vacuum

It is axiomatic that the higher you go in an organization, the less you are in-touch with what is really going on.  Call it “Leadership in a Vacuum.”

Yet the vacuum inevitably occurs with the role of leadership.  Partly it occurs due to the immensity of information that must be consumed to be effective; you can’t know everything, so you just learn the concepts.  Partly it occurs due to the psycho-dynamics of followers who often tell you what they think you want to hear.  Partly it occurs due to the arrogance, naivete or laziness on the part of the leader, who fails to seek out contrary, opposing views.  Each of these causes puts the the leader in danger.

Leaders must cultivate effective feedback loops to make sure they are getting the information they need to make solid decisions.

The operational definition of “effective feedback loop” is one in which the state of things (including the leader’s actions) are reported accurately, timely, faithfully, with maximal context and with minimal interpretation unless desired.

No doubt the leader will get a great deal of information from insiders that circulate in the same social circles as the leader.  This information should always be viewed with a dash of salt. Insiders not only have their own agenda, but their worldview will no doubt form a biasing filter regarding how information is interpreted.

Similarly, the leader should cast a jaundiced eye at “information” and opinions from acolytes, disciples or sponsors.  They all have an agenda, which is principally to curry favor with the leader so that they can receive favors in return.  Further, so few people are trained as analysts of reality, and prefer to let their own personal experience form the “reality” that they interpret for all.

The best feedback loop may come from your adversaries, your opponents, and your competition.

Different cultures have expressed the sentiment that you can often learn more about yourself and your actions by looking at how your enemies view you.  It is rare for many leaders to have the humility to actually engage in this practice, to seek out the criticism of themselves from alternate viewpoints, and to learn from it.  Yet, this is a winning formula. Seeking out the contrary view is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of someone with the courage to face their adversaries.

The most successful leaders that I have worked with constantly seek out opposing viewpoints and learn from them.  That doesn’t mean that they change their mind about their course of action, but at least they know how the “opposition” views them.  This lets the leader know how to frame or re-frame the message so that it becomes more persuasive; how to position resources so they are most valuable; how to sequence action so that it is most potent.

Difficult-but-real feedback is what makes leaders more effective.  It truly gives the leader a competitive advantage.  The alternative, for the leader to remain in isolated ignorance in a gilded cage, is the precursor to mediocrity at best, and certain doom at worst.

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