Sunday, June 28, 2009

Corporate Guards

Alan M. Webber in his book, Rules of Thumb, shares in rule #49 "If you want to grow as a leader, you have to disarm your border guards." In the chapter he relates a story of a time when he and his brother were detained by border guards. They had traveled into Prague and were headed back into West Germany.

At the checkpoint two guards confiscated their passports and thus Webber and his brother were held up for several hours. Webber concludes the story,"Here's the punchline: forty years later the border guards are gone. East Germany is no more and the Chancellor of a united Germany grew up in a country that no longer exists."

The story sets the stage for what he goes on to write about in the chapter. The thesis being we all employ body guards. Webber states, "The higher you go in your career, the more successful you are in your work, the more guards you get and the higher the price you pay." Webber is tapping into what is becoming all too familiar. What Webber calls the guards is what I call the corporate guards.

The need for these corporate guards begins rather innocently. A leader starts down a path and gradually things change. Webber writes, "They start their careers as learners open and accessible. As they move up in the organization-usually because they were learners- they get overwhelmed by the demands and expectations others place on them. It's too much. They end up forming an invisible exoskeleton. It cuts down on the overwhelming pressure. But it comes at a price the leader can not grow outside the shell."

The danger Webber points to is how executives end up isolated from others, surrounded with their own border guards - real or metaphorical -to control access to what's inside. He gives three suggestions to keep yourself accessible that I would like to share with you. The main points are Webbers, the elaborations are mine.

First, keep people around you who are not afraid to speak the truth. When a leader is surrounded by a bunch of "yes men" the leader is out of touch and creativity within the organization is killed. The "yes men" have become the corporate guards and while professing loyalty are only destroying what they claim to serve. Ultimately corporate guards are cowards who only have their best interests at heart.

A wise leader is strong enough to listen to the truth and a strong leader is courageous enough to speak it. The wise executive will send the corporate guards away and foster an environment of truthfulness and open communication. In the absence of truthful communication what are the corporate guards protecting anyway?

Second, remember to rub shoulders with real people. One of the dangers of corporate guards is being cut off from the real world. Corporate guards inoculate the leader and thus prevent him from understanding things at the most critical levels-where the people are.

A secure leader will mix it up with those in the organization and by doing so keep pulse of what's going on. In doing so he builds confidence with his team and remains grounded with perspective.

Third, don't ignore the emotional side of business. Webber says, "Emotional intelligence plays just as important a role in business as raw IQ. Unfortunately, there's not much in business school that educates leaders in the use of the right side of the brain." Corporate guards tend to dampen intelligence in the workplace.

A strong leader will not allow himself to be surrounded by corporate guards and will always remember where he came from. Corporate guards are enablers of insecurity and fortified leaders are greatly diminished.

Be determined to foster a climate of trust and openness- get rid of the guards.

© 2009 Doug Dickerson

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