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The Responsibilities of Gatekeeping

Followers who control the access of other followers to a leader have the responsibility to use this power fairly. The power of proximity to power is itself intoxicating and can inflate egos. Gatekeepers need to guard against becoming arrogant and indifferent to the needs of those seeking access to the leader. If supporting a leader requires blocking or limiting access to an overloaded leader, a gatekeeper can do so with empathy and find other ways to help the person seeking access. A gatekeeper can become less a border guard and more of a traveler’s aid station—a traffic router, networker, and facilitator.

Gatekeepers should not allow their own prejudices to insulate the leader from competing views or disapproved of sources. We must guard against litmus tests or subtle cultural biases, which limit the diversity of ideas reaching a leader. A gatekeeper must also avoid biasing a leader’s receptivity to a communication by introducing it derogatorily: “Oh, here’s another memo from so and so.” Biased remarks by a gatekeeper are a form of pandering to a leader’s perceived prejudices, or imposing one’s own.

A gatekeeper who distorts the screening process or abuses the leader’s reflected power hurts the leader and the organization. A courageous follower confronts this issue head on with the gatekeeper and, as necessary, with the leader. A functional gatekeeper protects those within the walls but freely lets in the commerce of ideas that keeps the community vibrant. A dysfunctional gatekeeper just keeps slamming doors.

Prominent leaders often receive many requests to lend their prestige to causes and events—charities, boards, coalitions, political activities, symposiums, civic initiatives. If leaders overcommit they become distracted from the common purpose. Effective followers do not necessarily leave this larger gatekeeping process to one individual. They establish a process to insulate an in-demand leader from excessive pressure and help her make balanced choices about which invitations to accept, delegate, or decline. A schedule reflects a leader’s values and priorities, and the process for developing it should not be taken lightly.

Competing scheduling requests can be batched and evaluated against well-thought-out criteria by a small, functionally balanced group. Some possible criteria are:

What opportunity does this invitation present for advancing the organization’s purpose?

What message does accepting or declining send about the leader’s values?

What is competing with this opportunity for the leader’s time and what value does that have to the organization?

Can the request be meaningfully delegated?

A well-thought-out scheduling process helps the leader and organization stay focused on the common purpose and the strategy for achieving it.