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Thin Air in the Ivory Tower

Originally published February 18, 2010

Most leaders avoid openness and vulnerability like the plague; some even view it like Kryptonite. Nevertheless, good leadership requires good relations with subordinates, and good relationships require vulnerability. It’s that simple. Good leaders don’t operate in a vacuum. While striving for success, many submit in some way to the seductions of tyranny, and within this limited submission, they find their best efforts yield either benevolent dictatorships or ivory-tower-style manipulations. However, for the flawless leader, vulnerability is the foundation of the successful relationship. Without vulnerability and openness, a leader is trapped in an ivory tower where the air is thin and the perceptions are myopic.

Here’s a real-life example: Steve was a powerhouse COO who didn’t waste time on unnecessary personal interactions; he was focused on driving the business. He used his hierarchical power to tacitly threaten people by saying things such as "This isn’t personal, it’s just business," or "If I have to do this for you, I don’t need you," or "Are you forgetting who is in charge here?" And, finally, "Your opinion is not valid; your accomplishment is – just get it done." People often felt discouraged if not demoralized when Steve passed by their cubicle or office…if he bothered to pass by at all. He rarely left his ivory tower on the 22nd floor, but when he did, he left a disengaged and disenchanted workforce.

According to quarterly numbers, Steve was doing extraordinarily well in his little “tower.” His stay there, however, was short-lived. Unbeknownst to him, his company secretly voted to unionize. The threat of unionization in a non-union company is significant. The board of directors immediately investigated the situation, found Steve to be the primary cause, and fired him.

Steve’s failure was rooted in his dearth of leadership and his disconnection with the people he needed most. Leadership is ultimately and consummately a relationship – a connection between people. No one was following Steve; instead, they were defending themselves against his leadership style. Leadership is dependent upon the relevant population. Leaders do not lead results, profits, outcomes, property or production – they lead people. It is also dependent on the voluntary relationship between leaders and followers; therefore, followers must actually want to follow.

Here’s an important point: Authentic relationships are freeing rather than confining. A relationship without freedom is not a relationship. At the heart of the flawless leader is the commitment to enliven and stimulate the relationship. When leaders feel lonely and isolated, we know they are aspiring to lead from a distance. In reality, they are trapped in their self-created ivory towers and are sadly trapping the value of their employees. This lonesome distance is the quintessential symptom of trapped value.

The antidote to isolation is not to surround one’s self with people, for people often feel lonely in crowds. The key is authenticity in the relationship because, boiled down to its simplest form, a relationship is nothing more than the binding operation between two or more participants. Relationships cannot be measured. They can, however, be understood in dynamic terms of movement, growth, change, and interaction. Managers love to measure things, so it is understandable that immeasurable relationships might frustrate them or cause them discomfort. If this is true for you, lean into the discomfort. Get to know it. In relationships, it typically helps to dive deeper when you feel like you are drowning. Love is the apex of relationship, and love cannot be measured effectively. Armand Nicholi, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of The Question of God said, “The strength of our relationships is a pretty good barometer of our emotional health.” This might explain the stunted emotional maturity and confining levels of anxiety and helplessness that leaders often feel due to inept relationship building.

Independence is the opposite of relationship, yet independence is a critical component of effective leadership. Leaders stand out from the crowd. They are either comfortable enough in or oblivious to their differences, thus enabling a naturally occurring level of separation and isolation. However, when this independence creates relational distance from followers, it becomes a debilitating time bomb – remember Steve, the fired COO? Leader distance eventually devolves into a sort or patriarchy or monarchy (essentially hierarchies held together by manipulations, obligations and constraints). As benevolent as the coercive dictator may be, human freedom is still at risk and when freedom is at risk, leadership falters and eventually fails. Appropriate levels of force are necessary for societal order, yet when leaders use force purely to maintain their position, follower freedom is disrespected and tyranny ensues. The ultimate unacceptable risk of the independent leader is failure through despotism. Independence-driven relationship avoidance creates isolation, and it is impossible to lead effectively in the vacuum of exile.

Healthy dependence, willful limiting, mutual submission and happy incompatibility are building blocks within the effective leadership paradigm. In the nucleus of the relationship lies a strong capacity for love and a commitment to mutual growth and health. Relationship is the leader’s quintessential job, not the worship of avarice, ambition, accomplishment-dependence or self-protection. To flawlessly lead, leaders must do what they fight diligently to avoid: They must surrender.

  • David McClearyDavid McCleary
    As CEO of FlawlessLeaders, David brings over two decades of operational leadership, change management and organizational development experience to his work with organizations across the world. His experience in multiple industries and cultures enables him to effectively advise and assist leaders in a wide variety of challenges. He has personally worked with hundreds of thousands of leaders across the world in workshops and individual coaching sessions. He works with organizations in multiple industries: airline, retail, wholesale, military, manufacturing, technology, casino, hotel, restaurant, insurance, legal, medical, financial services, churches, banking, commercial construction, supply chain management, home-building and property management. David is the author of Leaving Prisons: Release Your Trapped Value.



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