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This article by Richard K. Rein was prepared for the June 18, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

On Crippled Leader Syndrome

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.


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