By Tim Hayes

The Big Idea: Rigid chains of command stifle healthy dialogue.

Many years ago, when I was a PR greenhorn at a large corporation, I had returned from an assignment at a field office and approached the first floor elevators to get back to my little cubicle. Ahead of me walked the CEO of the company, headed for the same elevators. What happened next still confounds me, more than 30 years later.

The CEO had pressed the call button and caught sight of me as the doors opened and he entered the car. I was far enough away that I had to jog to make it into the same car, but as I got close enough to hop in, I could see the toes of his shiny polished wingtips parallel to the doors, which were closing on me. I could also hear the repeated pressing of a button from inside the car.

All I could deduce was that the CEO had forced himself into a corner of the elevator far enough that he didn’t have to see or acknowledge or, heaven forbid, talk with anyone – especially an employee!…the horror! – and that he was frantically hitting the “Close Door” button to make his solitary escape to the executive floor.

Now understand, this man was intellectually brilliant. He held degrees in engineering and law. The board of directors brought him in to steer the company through an aggressive period of growth and deregulation. Yet his interpersonal skills were absolutely awful, and his leadership suffered as a result.

Another surreal example. I had to interview the CEO for an employee magazine story. First, I got reprimanded for calling his assistant myself. Then, the Corporate Communications department head insisted he accompany me to the interview. But the topper came as the three of us sat at a conference table in the CEO’s office.

I asked my first question, looking directly at the CEO who was, after all, the subject of the story. This, I learned after a few extremely awkward moments, simply would not do.   That’s when my department head whispered to me, “Tim, ask me the questions.” And that’s how the rest of the meeting went. I’d ask my department head the question, he’d repeat it to the CEO, the CEO would answer the department head, I’d scribble the answers, and we’d start this bizzaro merry-go-round all over again with the next question. Keep in mind, we were all of three feet apart from each other.

Good grief, there’s chain of command and then there’s a chain of fools, and I felt ensnared by both that afternoon. I’d assume the CEO simply didn’t like me personally, if not for the fact that everyone else in my department had a similar story or two.

The point here is that great leaders have the expertise, knowledge, strategic and analytical powers to set a bold course for their organizations – plus the engaging, affable, inclusive, genuine feel for the people they lead. It’s not the easiest thing in the world to do, I know, having suffered from jitters making small talk with strangers at professional gatherings and receptions for years.

The fact remains, though, that I’d rather have a leader who’s great with people over one with a preponderance for book-smarts. Leaders with people-smarts have followers who believe in and act on the vision, not simply understand it. And therein lies all the difference.

Copyright 2020 Timothy P. Hayes