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Avoiding Insularity

There is a danger that the very success of the leader-follower relationship may weaken a leader. Leaders who become comfortable with their closest followers may begin to rely only on them for information, counsel, and feedback. Insularity occurs, and both leader and followers lose perspective and freshness of ideas; the team grows stale. If we always see the same kind of people, we always have the same kind of ideas.

Many newly elected presidents of the United States surround themselves with lifelong friends. The impulse is understandable. Taken too far, however, it is dangerous and works against a leader. We are prone to surround ourselves with people whose experiences, ideas, and temperaments are compatible with ours. They are mirrors, albeit mirrors set at different angles. Mirrors are important, but in different situations we need a variety of optical devices to perceive and understand events: microscopes, telescopes, periscopes, spectroscopes, infrared night-vision equipment. Relying on one type of instrument permits us to see what that instrument is good at seeing. To use power well, we must see and understand events from many perspectives, at many levels.

As close aides, consciously or not, we may encourage the tendency of leaders to narrow their sources of counsel because this increases our own power. Our egos nudge the common purpose off center stage. It takes courage to welcome others, who may dilute our power, into the inner circle. By bearing in mind the following observations and guidelines, we may avoid complicity in the tendency to insularity:

All humans long for greater power over their destiny; by serving a powerful leader who comes to rely on us, we feel more in control of our destiny.

In our desire for our leader to be powerful and for ourselves to remain close to this power, we can blind ourselves to a leader’s flaws and lose our ability to effectively provide feedback.

Though it goes against our instinct for accruing power to ourselves, we must encourage a leader to periodically seek other perspectives without the filter of close followers.

If we insulate the leader and ourselves from other perspectives, there is a far greater chance we will misuse and lose the power we desire.

Other perspectives provide a reality check on the relationship of a leader and close followers. Once followers move past feeling threatened, they too learn from the new perspectives; they too gain access to new ways of seeing. Diversity is a primary source of the balance needed to use power wisely.