The Challenges of Staying on Top of the World as Leaders


I have been struck by the huge perception gaps between those in positions of decision-making authority and the broader population affected by their decisions.

These gaps matter because leaders cannot make good decisions when they do not understand that categories within which they think about the world are out-of-date or even just plain wrong. Aside from the increasing complexity and interconnectedness in the world, there are three reasons for this:

  • Senior leaders continue to be isolated from the day-to-day environment around them, even though isolation is having progressively riskier consequences;
  • Everyone is operating in more fragmented media environments in which it is harder to get a holistic view of what is happening; and
  • Even if we understand a particular issue, geography, country, market, or culture, it changes so fast that our knowledge become obsolete more quickly.

Senior leaders, particularly older white males, are isolated from what is happening in their organizations, as well as the societies of which they are a part. In particular, they broadly underestimate diversity and complexity in our society, as well as other societies.

The “Isolation” Problem

When we are at lower organizational levels, we tend to mingle more with ordinary people. As we move up in organizations and get wealthier, we tend to have assistants who guard access to us. We get higher up in an organization, and are expected to delegate decision-making authority to others, which is considered a good leadership practice.

However, these practices often cause us to get progressively more isolated from the people we lead, as well as other people who live more ordinary lives. We live in more exclusive neighborhoods, join exclusive clubs for recreation, have people drive us from place to place, and have others perform tasks that touch ordinary people. When we visit remote operations of whatever organizations we lead, those we visit shield us from the ugly underside of whatever location we are visiting. The end result of this progression up an organization is that we lose a sense of the increasing diversity and complexity in our society.

America and other developed countries have become more globally, racially, religiously, and racially diverse than ever. People of color live in communities that we used to think of as being very non-diverse. There are more immigrants from more countries than ever before.

As I have presented our film From the Rough to many potential investors and partners, I have been struck by how limited their knowledge of broader societal trends has been. In the film, one of the story lines is a dating relationship between a white British student and a black female American student. Some people have commented that interracial dating of that kind cannot be common. They are shocked when I tell them that between 8-10% of all marriages licenses are being issued to interracial couples.

The film has international characters, one of whose members is a South Korean student passionate about hip-hop and gangster rap music and culture. Many viewers have questioned how true to reality a character like this can be, only to be surprised when I tell them there are several hundred thousand Korean-Americans each in the New York and Washington DC, and over a million in the Los Angeles metropolitan areas. They are even more surprised when I tell them that a sizable percentage of young hip-hop dancers and singers are South Korean.

People also underestimate the degree of diversity in formerly homogeneous non-coastal American cities, towns, and suburban areas. We have more immigrants in unlikely places, like the Vietnamese and Cambodians who work at Pitney Bowes’ Bucks County, Pennsylvania, facility, or the Africans who work at the company’s Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio, facilities, or the Tongas from the South Pacific who work at the UPS complex in Louisville, Kentucky.

Throughout the country, we have refugee populations, which have built communities in unexpected places. Many senior leaders are oblivious to these communities because they not only do not come in direct connect with them, but those interacting with the leaders never have occasion to tell them.

They also do not understand how diverse other countries have become. Many people formed an image of Australia from watching Paul Hogan in Crocodile Dundee in the 1980’s. However, almost 25% of Australians are first-generation immigrants. Many people of Japanese origin live in Peru, a vestige of a time when the Japanese invested heavily in Peru. Many entrepeneurs of Middle Eastern origin live throughout Latin America. Toronto, Canada, is a great center of medical genetics research because over 100 ethnic groups live within its boundaries.

My wife, daughter, and I traveled to Italy already this summer. For many years, I have seen Albanians and sub-Saharan Africans in Rome and other cities because of the more open EU immigration policies.

However, in the last few years, visiting Rome on business, I was surprised to be served by Indian desk clerks or Filipino hospitality workers at hotels in Rome. More recently, I have been surprised to learn about the fact that about 90,000 Peruvians live in Italy, and that there is a fast-growing Chinese population. In Northern Europe, before the financial crisis hit, the biggest issue Ireland faced was the influx of Polish domestic workers into the country. Of course, the growth of Muslims from North Africa and the Middle East is not only noticeable in France and Germany, but in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark as well.

Today’s isolation is magnified by fragmented media channels and technologies.

In the 1960’s, we grew up in a mass media generation. We had one TV set in a home, three national networks, and a very limited selection of films, AM radio stations, and other forms of entertainment. Time Warner estimated that in 1968 it was possible to reach 80% of the core adult audience with three prime time TV media advertising purchases.

We received our news from one of three national nightly news broadcasts. Walter Cronkite of CBS News would end his broadcast every night with the same sign-off: “That’s the way it is.” Today, we would consider this laughingly arrogant, since no 30-minute news broadcast could summarize the world as “it is.”

Today, we are in very personalized and customized worlds. The way we learn about the broader world is through highly fragmented media. We do not watch the same TV shows, if we even watch them on a digital TV set. We see a wide range of films in a variety of media. We are exposed to global content as it happens. We communicate by receiving broadcasts, and by broadcasting to a select group of friends through Facebook or LinkedIn. To reach the core audience that three media purchases could touch in 1968, we would need to buy more than 115 ads. A recent book called The Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser argues that the personalization of content by Google, Facebook, and other popular web sites fragments us even more. I see it with my own children. The world my 25-year-old son experiences is far different from the world my 18-year-old daughter experiences, even if they are in the same place at the same time.

What this means is that, as a parent, an organizational leader, or an advocate for a cause, a product, a service, or an organization, we are far less able to grasp the world in which we are acting in any holistic fashion than was the case before. Understanding the world our individual children inhabit is more bewildering than ever

What we think we understand changes more rapidly than ever. Our knowledge becomes obsolete more quickly.

Technologies and markets change faster than ever, and, with them, our mental maps of how the world works get obsolete. There are countless examples of this. In medical diagnoses, we no longer think of “cancer” as a single disease, as we did when President declared a “war on cancer” 40 years ago. There are over 100 varieties of breast cancer, and we are learning that “cancer” is a generic label for a medical condition in which certain cells either multiply more quickly or die more slowly than normal cells. “Curing” cancer is not a meaningful term in many cases because, while we can eliminate all detectable cancer cells in the body at one time, we may not be able to eliminate what has caused cells to mutate and create new cancer cells.

The concept of a “genetic” link to a medical condition has changed. “Genes” are not hard-wired as a cause of diseases, except in a small number of cases, but only come into play when ”expressed.”

Beyond medicine, the same need to redefine old categories comes into play every day. Today, telephones operate as computers, and computers are used for telephone calls. The Internet has converted analog voice into digital data streams. The nature of workplaces has changed radically. We may work where we are and we have connectivity to servers enabling us to perform tasks, rather than going to a particular location.

Geographic areas we visited ten years ago do not even look the same or have the same demographics. Anyone who visits China today will see cities that bear no resemblance to the same places they visited 5-10 years ago. Even in America, many cities or towns look different, especially if they have experienced an economic boom of any kind.

Overall implications

Leaders today have to be humble, flexible in their views of how the world works, and in a continuous learning mode. Adults of my generation or earlier who climbed up an organizational ladder and believed that they had “mastered” a body of knowledge, a set of skills, or a group of people are the most dysfunctional people.

As an adult, I have developed humility and skepticism about my ability to lead others with the boldness and confidence that a predecessor generation justifiably may have had. This world requires more testing and retesting of whether our fundamental assumptions about the word are valid and whether our messages mean what we intend to communicate, and whether they are getting through.

Many successful adults are in denial about this world. I hope we will find a way to reassert some common experiences, values, and insight as we try to address the increasingly complex problems all societies face.