Creative Leadership

Why Leaders Are Often The Last To Know

When I consult with churches, ministries, or nonprofits, I’m often surprised – even shocked – how often the leader is the last to know what’s going on in the organization. Theoretically, vision trickles down from the top, but in reality, a great deal comes from the bottom up, and when that happens, a leader who isn’t in touch with the team, becomes the least influential person in the organization.  I recently read a quote from the late Andy Grove, former CEO of computer microchip maker Intel. He mentioned his surprising encounter with another company and the fact that the president of that company was the last to know about an important issue:

“When I reported this to the individuals who brought me the news, our IT manager said, “Well, that guy is always the last to know.” He, like most CEOs, is in the center of a fortified palace, and news from the outside has to percolate through layers of people from the periphery where the action is. . . .  The lesson is, we all need to expose ourselves to the winds of change. We need to expose ourselves to our customers, both the ones who are staying with us as well as those that we may lose by sticking to the past. We need to expose ourselves to lower-level employees, who, when encouraged, will tell us a lot that we need to know. We must invite comments even from people whose job it is to constantly evaluate and critique us.”

My friend John Maxwell calls it “walking through the factory.” Every leader needs to be in touch with the entire organizational chart. It doesn’t mean he has to have lunch with the guys on the loading dock (although that could be an eye opening experience).  But if he or she isn’t regularly making the rounds, chatting up the team, and checking with people up and down the chain, he or she is missing critical indicators of what’s happening.

Have you ever worked with a leader who stayed behind fortified walls.  How did that impact the morale of the company?

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  1. A fews years back I visited the USS Alabama in Mobile. I was intrigued to see the captain’s fortified control centre. He lived and directed inside a steel tube that I couldn’t guess the thickness of, I think it was over 2 ft thick steel! A friend of mine was first officer on HMS Sheffield, when it was hit with an Exocet missile in the Falklands War. Sheffield was a very different style warship and the captain protected no more than his crew. It demonstrated two approaches to leadership — one where the leader was critical and everything done to keep him alive, the other where built into the leadership model was the ability of lower officers to take over.

    As followers of the Messiah we need to see how He led – the servant King who empowered rather than controlled. Someone once said a leader’s role is to make himself or herself redundant. I read somewhere a quote, it may have been from Baden-Powell… ‘Bad leaders lead from the back, good leaders lead from the front, but of truly great leaders people say ‘we did it ourselves”.

  2. Yes I have. Clueless! In my experience, it greatly lowers morale when you know your leader doesn’t care enough to know what goes on “in the trenches”. There is a wealth of information down there, but it isn’t valued.

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