Corrections or additions?
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
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
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.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.