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Bush is Minding the Gap, with Blaine McCormick (Newswise.com – Baylor University) December 2, 2003

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.

While the rest of us were enjoying turkey with our families last week, President Bush was busy minding the gap. Good thing, too, since many a leader today has been caught in that very place.

“Minding the gap” is a valuable cultural contribution from a disembodied voice in the London subway system. Americans are always a bit puzzled, and then amused, when they are cautioned as they exit the train to “mind the gap” between the train and the platform. But the phrase has implications beyond the London Underground, and it is especially important advice for modern leaders.

In one sense, gaps describe some of the largest problems in society. The gap between rich and poor is growing larger, both domestically and among nations. The famous generation gap that emerged in the 1960s continues to create strains and misunderstandings, as does the gender gap. In more recent years, we fear the implications of a technology gap.

Some of those gaps can be closed over time, but great leaders have learned that at least one gap–the separation between leaders and followers–is inevitable. Leaders will often know more, see more, and make more than their followers. As a result, the challenge for leaders is to constantly “mind the gap” between themselves and followers, lest troubles result.

One reason for President Bush’s personal popularity, even among those who do not agree entirely with his policies, is that he actively manages the gap between his position and the people he leads. One way leaders do this by showing up where the action is, where followers are folling up their sleeves and doing the heavy lifting. While the rest of us were enjoying family feasts and football, President Bush showed up where he was least expected, serving Thanksgiving dinner and offering encouragement to our troops in harm’s way.

Learning to identify with people and being with them in times of crisis and difficulty is a major part of minding the gap. When President Bush leaves the White House and puts his arms around families who are suffering loss, or speaks spontaneously to firefighters from the back of a pickup truck in New York, his ability to be with people shows great strength as a leader. Critics may call it politics or media savvy, but the polls show people respect Bush’s values and common touch.

President Bush may have learned a lesson from his father, who some felt did not mind the gap between the presidency and the people. In his 1992 campaign for reelection, President George H.W. Bush was damaged by the impression that he did not know the prices of common grocery store items and by the story–true or not–that he was surprised to see a then-common supermarket scanner. By contrast, his opponent, Bill Clinton, kept his gap smaller with appearances on MTV and stories about his rise from “a place called Hope.”

Minding the gap is not just a challenge for political leaders. People in business and nonprofits can easily lose touch. Sometimes the gap sneaks up on leaders one email at a time. In our technology age, it is tempting for leaders to trade the classic MBWA (management by walking around) for MBTA (management by typing around).

Unfortunately emails and cell phones are no substitute for actually being with the people you lead. The seemingly paradoxical ability of leaders to be both out in front and also alongside one’s followers is the mark of great leadership.

The recent failures of corporate leaders can also be described as a failure to mind the gap. In fact, some poor leaders widen the gap through their own greed and bad judgment. Huge salaries and excessive perks are one form of widening the gap. Jurors deciding the corruption case against ex-Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski no doubt felt the gap when they watched a video of his wife’s $2 million birthday party in Sardinia, Italy, complete with toga-clad women and profane ice sculptures.

Another voice from London, that of former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, warned: “The most dangerous thing in the world is to try to leap a chasm in two jumps.” Far better to follow the voice of the London Underground and learn to mind the gap. If you do not, someone will stumble. It may be one of your followers. Or it might be you.

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