How healthy is your boss? Elsewhere in this issue and in the 72-page directory that is inserted within it, scores of health practitioners and exercise advocates ask how healthy you are — assuming that you should care mightily about the answer and be willing to do something about it. Back here we take a different tack: how healthy is that man or woman who runs your company or your department — and your life to some degree for 40 or more hours a week?
We have been thinking about that question and its implications ever since January of 2002, when our own mortality was revealed during an angiogram and subsequent angioplasty to clear out a 90 percent clogged artery. We didn’t doubt that the staff would care about the boss’s health, but we wondered how that care would be manifested. As in a lot of other situations around an office, people might not act the way you would expect.
Years ago U.S. 1 did a story on a guy named John O’Brien, who had lost both his parents at the age of 3, had been educated at the Milton Hershey School in Pennsylvania, became an all-state football quarterback, and then gained admission to Princeton, where he learned — in his own words — "how to cope with dramatic failure" both in the classroom and on football field, where he was relegated to the second string. O’Brien graduated in 1965 and became a corporate trainer — a teambuilder.
In one of his exercises he would break corporate types into teams of a dozen or so and take them outside to a rope bridge suspended between trees about six feet off the ground. He asked the participants to imagine that the bridge actually spanned a deep chasm and that they were being chased by hungry hyenas. Their task was to pick a leader and then get everyone across the bridge as quickly as possible. They would be timed and the teams would be ranked from quickest to slowest.
At that point each team elected a leader — often the tallest and strongest man — and then O’Brien put one more factor into the equation. Their leader had just fallen and was paralyzed from the waist down — he would have to be lifted by the others onto the rope bridge and helped off at the other end.
Almost invariably, at that point the crippled leader would sit silently on the ground as the rest of team argued about how to transport him across. The leader stopped leading and the team assumed that he could not lead. And that was the point of the exercise.
Call it the crippled leader syndrome — it’s no joke. FDR went to great lengths to keep the public from seeing him in a wheelchair. Why? CLS. JFK had medical problems that were kept secret from everyone except his physician and closest advisers, his wife, and his most discreet mistresses. Why? CLS.
So how is U.S. 1 performing, now that it is affected by CLS?
Differently, for sure. People who once used to come to me for one little piece of information after another, now turn to someone else for that information. When I talk about the need for certain projects to be managed by someone other than me, there is a new urgency to the discussion. When I turn over to someone else the mundane but highly important final details of desktop publishing a section of the paper, I sense that the other person is listening more intently.
That’s all good. But there are some other moments when the U.S. 1 office reminds me of the corporate teams at the edge of the abyss, the crippled leader ignored on the sideline. Problems that ought to be brought to the attention of the boss (or at least to the guy who has had 19 years experience in the business, whether he is the boss or not) are kept undercover: "We don’t want to add to his stress."
But, of course, the problem does not remain hidden for long — and usually when I least expect it and inevitably at the most inopportune time — I am blindsided by it. So much for alleviating stress.
Even before U.S. 1 contracted CLS, it had suffered from POS — pre-occupied owner syndrome. For the past three or four years I have left the office early on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays to pick up my kids at school. Given telephone contact with the office, and a PC Anywhere modem connection to my computer at work, I have hardly skipped a beat. In the beginning people used to routinely call me to exchange information and even plan ahead. Since January, 2002, the phone has been quiet — the only people who didn’t get the memo are the telemarketers and consumer survey people.
But is all this so bad? Not really, my status as a crippled leader has undermined all the easy assumptions that typically strangle the workers at organizations led by Superboss. The old lament — "only Rich can make that decision" — is being replaced by a new one — "he’s never here so we have to do it ourselves."
So instead of a hero boss around here, we have an anti-hero. And that’s not so bad either, as I will explain next week: This alleged problem, it turns out, is really an opportunity.