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  • Writer's pictureBrian Reaves

The Weakness of an Insulated Leader

There is a very old story told about two guys who came to a town and asked to speak to the emperor. They passed themselves off as high-end tailors there to craft a perfect new outfit for the emperor, showing him the finest new material ever made that could only be seen by highly intelligent people in the right positions. They were actually just holding out their empty hands, but the emperor didn't want to seem out of place for his job so he began remarking on how beautiful the material was.

He paid an extravagant amount of money and the two "tailors" crafted him a new suit. The emperor spoke highly of how beautiful it was, and he brought members of the royal court in to see it after explaining the uniqueness of the material. They were all likewise afraid to seem out of position so they all talked about how amazing it looked.

Eventually, the emperor decided to show off his new outfit to the people, so he had a huge parade and came in at the end wearing the new outfit. Of course, he was actually just standing there in his undies.

The people had all heard the story of the material as well, so they all began to express how amazing the outfit looked...until a small child standing there said, "Why is he in his underwear?" At that point, everyone began to admit they saw nothing, and eventually the emperor realized--too late--that he had been duped.

That story is invaluable to leaders. The moral is simple: The world sees the truth no matter what you may act like is happening. Your reality is not reality for the world around you.

A few years ago I met an insulated leader. His inner circle knew good and well what he wanted to hear, and they told him the magic words. He wouldn't allow any dispute of his way of thinking, saying that he "didn't allow negativity in his company". As a result, he walked around with this overwhelming attitude of superiority because to him the world was perfect and his every decision was right.

Unfortunately for him, the rest of the world saw the truth. He was a very weak leader. Folks liked him, and he'd often get those "bless his heart, he's trying" comments behind his back from the real world, even as his inner circle was constantly telling him how in awe they were at his wisdom.

A strong leader not only handles the truth, but seeks it out from people who have no reason to tell them otherwise. They want to get better. They want to constantly improve their work which will naturally trickle down to improving their managers and teams. They don't ask their spouse to tell them what they want to hear, nor do they go to their best friends who also don't want to hurt their feelings. Instead, they ask their customers and clients how they can improve. They seek honest feedback, no matter how much it may sting.

Insulated leaders want to be soothed and coddled. They want constant affirmation that they are right--even if their decisions are obviously wrong. And should anyone dare to question their decisions, they are dealt with quickly and harshly.

Being a leader is a hard thing at times. I'm not saying you should have your every decision second-guessed all the time like you have no ability to think on your own. At the same time, I am saying you should be open to suggestions and admit you don't know it all.

If you want to insulate yourself because your fragile little ego can't handle a dissenting opinion, you can. Knock yourself out and pat yourself on the back every chance you get. Surround yourself with "yes people" who will only tell you what you want to hear and affirm your own perceived greatness and infallibility,

But remember: the rest of the world can tell you aren't wearing any fancy new outfit. They can see your mistakes and bad decisions, and they can also see your inability to accept your flaws and humanity. You may live your life fooling yourself in your little cocoon of perfection, but don't be surprised when others succeed around you while you stagnate. An insulated leader can only grow so far and then they can't outgrow their swaddling clothes.

The leader I mentioned earlier continued for years with their rose-colored glasses and back-patting inner circle while the rest of the company noticed and discussed his every bad decision. To my knowledge, he's still happily insulating himself from any contrary opinion of his perfection. And that's why he's in the same position he was in all those years ago, and also why he'll never grow beyond it until someone higher up in the company fires him or is brutally truthful.

Be honest with yourself. Be open to suggestions. Accept the fact that you are not in any way, shape, or form perfect. And get honest feedback from people who have no need to tickle your ears with what you want to hear.

It's not easy, it's not always fun, but it beats walking through town in your underwear thinking you're in pretty clothes.

P.S. My newest program "Metamorphosis: Transform Your Leadership" is geared toward helping you become the best leader you can be. It's a more in-depth program that is structured toward an extended session, but we can make it work with the time frame of your event. And don't forget to check out the book as well!

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