Living in the Bubble Spells Disaster for Leaders

When I worked as a communication specialist in an AT&T (later Lucent Technologies) manufacturing facility in Richmond, Va., in the 1990s, one of my responsibilities was to help coordinate face-to-face opportunities by visiting executives.

One executive was Curtis. J. Crawford, who at the time was president of AT&T Microelectronics, the business unit to which our plant belonged. Rarely did Crawford miss an opportunity to visit the factory floor. He always had his message points about the direction of the business and what it would take to achieve goals, but he also listened to what was on the minds of employees.

I recalled this about Crawford, who is now president and CEO of XCEO, Inc., a management consulting firm, as I listened to President Barack Obama’s press conference the day after his policies were largely rejected by voters in mid-term elections. One of the themes that has emerged among analysts is that Obama and congressional Democrats failed to listen to Americans. Indeed, Obama acknowledged that he might be perceived as out of touch, one danger of living “in the bubble” of the White House.

“How do I meet my responsibilities here in the White House .. but still have that opportunity to engage with the American people .. and give them confidence that I am listening to them,” said a pensive Obama during the press conference.

Like his policies or not, many people considered Obama to be an effective communicator during his presidential campaign. However, somewhere along the way, he lost sight of the other side of communication — listening — and it might have cost his party its hold on the U.S. House of Representatives.

There’s a lesson here for business leaders, and that’s what made me recall Curt Crawford. Now, there are obvious differences between the President of the United States and the president of a company. But just as the President of the United States is beholden to the voting public, presidents of companies are beholden to shareholders, customers, boards of directors and, yes, employees. And while leadership sometimes means making tough and unpopular decisions, failure to listen to what is on the minds of your constituents can spell disaster.

Leaders who listen take into account the ideas, concerns and perspectives of stakeholders and fold them into the mix of other data upon which leaders rely. Why is this important? Here are a few reasons:

  • Leaders don’t know everything. There are subject-matter experts out there whose expertise just might help solve a problem.
  • People want to know they’re being listened to. A leader who listens sends a message about the importance of constituent groups, whether customers, employees or shareholders.
  • Leaders lead only if followers allow them to. If a leader loses the confidence and trust of constituents, the leader’s effectiveness and ability to get things done suffers.

I remember Curt Crawford telling employees that communication was perhaps his most important role as a leader. Certainly it’s not the only role — there is strategy and the management of resources, among others — but he recognized that a leader who leads from the bubble of the C-suite, who is out of touch with stakeholders, is doomed to failure. Just ask President Obama.


One Response

  1. Excellent post, Robert. Leaders can get by for a while — sometimes way too long — without listening or communicating effectively. But eventually it catches up with them, and the results are catastrophic. Unfortunately too many business leaders don’t see communication as an important part of their job, so they “hire people to do that.”

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