Few things are more frustrating than a disconnected leader. We witness them careen down one insular path after another blind to the signs along the way. Their mind is made up-no matter the facts. The result is inevitable-failure at worst and opportunities not maximized at best. If you don't believe me find some quiet time and an honest moment with Obama.
Staying connected to the customer, the team, the public, the competition and, of course, one's family takes effort, honesty and openness. We must be willing to listen with an open mind, remain humble, and clearly communicate our intentions so that relevant feedback can be given.
Great leaders surround themselves with people who are willing to speak up and dissent. If leaders create cultures that stifle disagreement they will ultimately be left with only those who know how to agree with them. The strong people will leave and find employment where their views are heard and even welcomed--the antithesis of an insular culture. An insular culture is one that listens primarily to itself. Heads nod and shake in unison. Dissenters are marginalized as uninformed, crazy and/or radical. The most dangerous aspect is that soon the group, because it feeds off its members, believes that what they are doing is "right". Once this happens the mind shuts down, and it is full speed ahead no matter the cost or distance from reality. A real disconnect. If everyone in the room agrees be wary.
Remaining open to new information demands a culture that welcomes it or it never arrives. Once achieved the culture must be nurtured and validated with every key decision. The leader must be willing to listen and actually heed the advice of others. No one has all the answers. This by no means suggests we be ambivalent or "wishy-washy". It simply means that we must remain open to new information, make sure it is shared and then make an informed decision. Nothing is ever done until it is. The weight of the new information determines whether a change in direction is necessary. This is the leader's call.
The leader needs direct, unfiltered feedback from the customer. In retail it can arrive via surveys, research studies, walking the floor and listening, reading comments and calling customers. In manufacturing many of the same apply but also direct interaction with the person selling your product to the consumer is critical. Avoid leading questions. Be willing to hear how bad you are at certain things. Admit the need to improve as this makes it easier for others to open up and share their true thoughts. Be sincere in your desire for good and bad news. Knowledge of both is how we continue to grow and learn.
It takes a team of quality people that are willing and able to speak their mind, and a leader committed to hearing directly from them and the customer, in order to stay connected to reality. Reality is far from fixed. It changes and demands the same from us if we are to maximize our potential. Keeping up with change is challenging in the best of cultures. Staying connected is virtually impossible in a culture that shuts down dissent or only rewards and hires those who agree.
Stay connected. Work at it. It is worth it.