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Why Leaders Within Bubbles Can’t Lead Agile, Democratic Organizations

If someone had to describe a hotshot corporate executive in a game of Pictionary, what might they draw? A luxurious corner office? A dedicated parking spot? Or, a do-it-all assistant? And, they’d totally win the round because these are the symbols most associated with the top management of any organization. These privileges have become so intrinsic to the image of a corporate leader that it’s difficult to imagine one without them.

Now here’s an anecdote that paints a very different picture of a top-tier leader: One of the former CEOs of Semco was once working at the table right next to an intern. It so happened that when the intern took a toilet break, he received a call. The CEO took the call for him and said, “Hi! How can I help you?”

The person on the other end said they needed to talk to the intern and the CEO said the intern was not at his desk presently. But he didn’t stop with that - he asked, “What message can I take for him?” The person on the other end gave his message, which the CEO put down on a post-it note and left it on the intern’s desk. Then he left for a meeting. When the intern came back to his desk, he found the note left there for him by the CEO.

Can you imagine any CEO taking down messages for the intern? Although it’s a simple gesture that we all do all the time, it’s quite impressive in the context of power distances that exist in most organizations.

Losing Touch With Reality

In any company, power and the privileges that come with it do nothing but increase the distance between the management and employees. But, more importantly, they make managers and leaders lose touch with reality. As soon as someone enters the realm of management, they get swallowed by a bubble that inches them away from the people who do the actual work in the business.

Managerial privileges are some of the most dogged hangovers of the industrial era that have the power to reinforce workplace inequalities. The privileges become invisible to the leaders and managers who enjoy them because they take them for granted. But they are like intangible silos that separate people into those who make decisions and those who execute those decisions. Getting rid of the privileges and symbols of power is one of the first things an organization must do if it decides to take the democratic leadership route.

Lip Service Won’t Cut It

When an organization tosses out managerial privileges and errands reserved for interns and lower-level employees, it sends out a powerful message to the whole organization. That, from hereon, there will be no more distance between the leadership and the employees. When an organization removes the privileges enjoyed by managers and leaders, it shows that everybody’s equal and that they all share the same rights. It’s the first step towards organizational democracy.

Employees of a company will begin to trust the leadership only if they walk the talk. If the management continues to enjoy certain privileges, while talking about organizational democracy, then it’s just lip service that can severely damage employee morale. An organization that’s serious about becoming democratic should begin the change within its leadership.

Bid Goodbye To Privileges

It’s not that company CEOs and top-level managers are universally unaware of the dangers that come with the disconnect caused by power. A lot of them realize that their power is building an impenetrable wall around them which keeps out everything they really need to know before it’s too late. After all, changes that rewrite the market and the competition tend to begin as slight discords at the fringe of popular attention.

And for companies to survive the fast-paced change ushered in by groundbreaking innovations, leaders need to be able to get wind of them much earlier. It cannot happen if the people working under them are worried more about keeping them in good spirits or if they deliver only good news to them. Leaders need to burst their own bubbles and reframe the ways in which they seek information from their subordinates.

In order to step out of the stereotypes that stubbornly follow in their wake, leaders need to first bid goodbye to their privileges and walk the talk on closing the gap. In theory, managerial privileges might sound like simple, trivial things to give up. But, in reality, it’s one of the toughest transformations to achieve in an organization and there’s bound to be a lot of psychological resistance. But the more leaders strive to lose their halos and step out of their ivory towers, the more agile the business will be.

 

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