Last One to Find Out

by Ted Esler

Do you ever feel like you are the “last one to find out” about something?

If you are a leader you probably are.

I have found that the higher up the organizational chart one sits, the less likely one understands what is happening within the organization. Senior leaders can be most at risk but any leadership position carries with it the likelihood that information isn’t shared with the leader.

It happens because leaders become less involved in operations and execution of the mission on a day-to-day basis. There are also social issues surrounding leadership (nobody wants to tell the boss bad news). Leaders spend less time with the constituents that the organization serves. They must focus on organizational sustainability, including issues around money, strategy and staffing. Information is power and people use it as a tool, often keeping it secret until it has personal usefulness. Christian organizations and churches are even more vulnerable because Christian “niceties” can override truth telling. The longer a leader serves the more prone they are to losing touch with organizational reality. All of this results in a bad stew of leadership isolation from organizational reality.

Don’t believe me? Don’t think I am describing your leadership situation? Then I suggest you watch the hit television show, Undercover Boss. Top-level executives go undercover and become regular employees within their organizations. Watching one episode should cure you from the fallacy that, as a leader, you have a good handle on what’s happening within the organization, church or team you lead.

So how do leaders get a better handle on the truth? The old “comment box” will not cut it. Here are a few ideas:

  • Solicit bad news. If your staff think that you only want to hear the good stuff then they will only tell you the good stuff (solicit good news as well, of course, but you have to target the bad news if you want to hear it). Jesus asked a lot of questions. Maybe you should as well.
  • Celebrate honesty and openness in private meetings and in public meetings. Reward people that tell the truth with words of encouragement and thankfulness. Clarify what they say and listen well. Correct them if they make unsubstantiated criticisms but show them that if they have something to say it will be seriously considered.
  • Temper your temper when you get bad news. In fact, this should extend past bad news; critics of your great idea should feel free to tell you why it is a dumb idea. Listen objectively and don’t react in a way that will make people avoid telling you negative things. Constructive conflict fertilizes the field in which good decisions grow. Don’t avoid it.
  • Get out into your organization and sit with your staff (or walk or run or whatever they do) to observe what is happening. Make phone calls, process checks, or do what they do for a time. They will appreciate it and you will learn something from it. This is one of the ways that Jesus’ leadership was so incredible. He was among those he led so he had a front row seat to what they were all about.

When a leader is newly appointed they get lots of good input. It doesn’t take long for that stream of communication to slow down to a trickle. If you have served in your role for more than two or three years, you can believe that people aren’t telling you what they are thinking. It doesn’t have to be that way but it is up to you as a leader to jump over this hurdle.

While the dynamics behind leader isolation will never go away, leaders can become better at avoiding the pitfalls.

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