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The Ivory Tower Syndrome

"His cardinal mistake is that he isolates himself, and allows nobody to see him; and by which he does not know what is going on in the very matter he is dealing with. - Abraham Lincoln on his reason for relieving Gen. John C Fremont of his Missouri command. (September 1861)

How many times have you been given direction from your boss or the "head office" where you find yourself just shaking your head, wondering how the executive team could possibly have made such an uninformed decision? Maybe they have implemented a new cost control program that eats at the heart of your implementation process, putting you into a position where you can't possibly meet your delivery commitments. Or they roll out a new sales promotion that is not supported by your systems and almost assuredly will result in unhappy customers.

In my younger years I worked as an accountant at the head office of a shoe retail chain. We were suffering some significant losses in some stores and implemented some new control systems. Later I was shopping in one of our stores where the sales clerks did not know me. They were bemoaning the latest directive from "The Ivory Tower" and how silly it was and how difficult it made their job.

"These guys just don't get it", they were saying. "They've totally lost touch with what goes on in the real world." I was young, and very confident that we in the head office had a bigger, more complete view of the situation than these sales clerks did. I was confident that they were the ones who had lost touch. They just didn't see the big picture.
Sound familiar?

I know that I heard a similar refrain at least 100 times in my career. The people in the field were convinced that the people in "The Ivory Tower" were out of touch. The executives in the home office were convinced that they had taken the proper steps based on "the big picture".

Who was right? It's hard to tell. There is no pat answer. Surely not every decision the executives make is correct, nor is every decision they make wrong. But as Lincoln intimated when he replaced General Freemont, it's not a good thing to lose touch with what is happening on the front lines.

Leaders that isolate themselves too much from the day-to-day activity of their business take the risk of losing touch with their employees, their customers, and even the companies' mission. In fact, there is an old joke about how decisions are made with input from the front lines that gets so badly distorted by the time it reaches the executives that it bears no semblance to the original message. Some people would tell you that this represents a communications problem. And to an extent, it does. But it also represents an executive team that is out of touch because it relies entirely on the chain of command to get information about important issues instead of being directly plugged into the day-to-day activities.

But here is an important thought that every reader needs to keep in mind. My experience is that the first line managers are just as likely to be out of touch with the day-to-day activities as the executive team is. If you are failing to walk the floor to talk with your employees; If you are failing to open the lines of communications on what happens on a daily basis; If you are so absorbed in meetings that you don't spend direct time with your first line staff then you too take the risk of not truly understanding your business. And that is much more risky then what happens in "The Ivory Tower".

David Meyer, owner of Coaching for Tomorrow, has more than 25 years of management and leadership experience, having worked for companies such as Nobil Shoes, McDonough, Allied Stores, MCI and Nextel Communications.  His mantra, "You Win With People" is based on the deep-seated belief that hiring, developing, and promoting the right people can lead to organizational and financial success.  As a management and leadership coach, David works to instill that same passion in his clients by helping them understand the importance of strong leadership, strong teamwork, and strong players.

David has a Bachelor's in Business Administration from Elmhurst College and has been certified by both ACTION International as a Business Coach and the Coach Training Alliance.  He also has received his CTM from Toastmasters.  He is an Officer in the Denver Coach Federation and a facilitator/trainer for the Coach Training Alliance and ACTION International of Colorado.  He is also a co-author of the book Creating Workplace Community: Motivation.

Married with two adult daughters, David is active in his local Kiwanis club and Crossroads Community Church.  He enjoys reading, golf, scuba diving, and Civil War reenacting.

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