Out of Touch

Doors and walls are not inherently bad. But with enough time spent only on one side of them, the other world becomes more of a mystery than reality. More importantly, when the people on the other side become a mystery, trust inevitably becomes scarce – and leadership is really in peril. The rulers of this kingdom had to come to terms with how they would see beyond the castle they had built with the best intentions.

There was once a humble village square built around a well. People gathered and gabbed, made decisions, and shared things of value. They were, by all definitions, fortunate.

As time went by, they were so fortunate that the village founders decided to erect a proper building to gather in. It would be lasting, protective against the elements, and done in such a way that people would know it for miles. They did it, and it accomplished just that. The people – increasingly more people, in fact – continued to gather, and the town prospered.

With such success, the founders continued to plan and envision great things. The well wasn’t enough to support such growth, so they raised funds and expanded the town. They acquired land and established industries. More people were attracted to it, and with them they brought new resources and ideas, which the founders used to continue growing the kingdom beyond what anyone had ever imagined.

Eventually, the kingdom attracted so much traffic, opportunity, and interest, that the founders became unsure of whether the town hall could support such commotion. They also began to notice the large estates of other growing kingdoms in far away lands. Moreover, they became nervous about their security. The kingdom needed a proper castle, they decided.

And thus, a castle was built.

They built a fine, respectable, yet sensible castle. Within it, the leaders – or rulers – continued to meet and envision great things. They maintained schedules, inventories, and mingled with one another as they came in and out. It was a time of plenty.

But it became too much.

There were too many visitors in and out of the castle. Meetings ran long and accounts were in question. There were so many leaders that it was hard to remember who was who, where was where, and who was doing what. No one could enjoy having a castle when everyone was inside. What was even the point?

Something had to be done. So they built a wall around the castle, and in the wall they put a single door. And the door was closed. 

It worked…for a day.

Unfortunately, no one had thought about how the walls would keep some people in, in addition to keeping everyone else out. But now they couldn’t see! What could they do?

They built the castle higher, of course.

Up and up, the castle grew. The leaders could now see as far as they wanted beyond the kingdom. They built great towers and great telescopes. Not even the furthest kingdom could escape their gaze.  Closer to the castle, it was still difficult to see as the people were too small to make out. What were they doing? Who was who? It didn’t matter, because all the reports came in and out on time now that the masses weren’t directly involved. After all, it was for everyone’s good. The rulers could better lead and everyone would benefit if they maintained the right intentions, as they most certainly did. The kingdom continued to grow, and the rulers prospered. 

One day, something started to change. Outside the castle, the people were growing weary. They continued about their work but had no knowledge of what the leaders were doing inside. Regular communications and bulletins were announced at the doorway, all signed by important people, but they seemed less familiar. The writing became “castle-speak” rather than the common tongue, and it didn’t seem entirely accurate to their situation in the towns.

Moreover, life for common folk didn’t match the headlines. The people continued to hear that the kingdom was growing and greater than before, but there was somehow never enough money for higher wages or better living conditions. Only the castle kept growing. New floors, new towers, and new kingdoms were added. With every new floor, the rulers kept moving up higher – so the people heard. Common folk rarely entered the castle. Either they needed the right appointment, the right title, or the right attire. Outsiders came in and out of the castle, admitted through the doorway as they toted important looking binders of information. What was going on? Who was running things now? Rumors began to run rampant. In any case, the rulers were clearly appeared out of touch and reach.

Disturbed by the audible grumblings and visibly stagnant performance of the kingdom, the rulers sought to resolve the situation. They sent out delegates (the experts from the outside who had now been living inside the castle for about 3-4 months) to listen and better understand the problem. After a short while, all of the delegates came back with their findings. The data was analyzed and insights created. They were very effectively shared with the rulers in short, clear, compelling statements.

“Your people have spoken, and they say that they need better communication, more transparency, more support, and that leadership is ‘out of touch’ on the whole.”

Shocked and disappointed, the rulers requested that a plan be created immediately to resolve these issues. The team got to work and brought back an ambitious plan. It included:

  • Begin posting success metrics and performance in the various meeting areas across the kingdom
  • Send out criers and bulletins weekly to alert all citizens of the highest priorities for the kingdom
  • Take turns as leaders to walk around the kingdom on a regular basis paying attention to best practices, noticing potential problems, and greeting people in general

Pleased with this plan, the leaders moved quickly. They announced great results, began communicating more from inside the castle to the far reaches of the kingdom, and they went out through the door of the castle wall on specific days at specific times to observe, engage, and ask questions. Soon, they felt an incredible sense of accomplishment at all they had communicated, shared, and seen. Things were looking up.

Unfortunately, nothing really changed. Performance continued to waver, people continued to struggle, and more of them began to leave the kingdom. Moreover, new feedback showed that the same problems existed as before their plan was implemented. What would they do?

First, they bid farewell the outsiders who had brought the seemingly failed recommendations. Second, they called all of their administrators and local leaders to have regular meetings inside the castle and explain how they were boosting performance and morale. Every day became meeting after meeting, report after report, and failed idea after failed idea.

“We must work harder! Engage our people more!”

Again, nothing really changed – except that more and more problem-solvers continued to walk in and out of the door in the castle wall.

One day, however, a certain ruler awoke from a restless sleep and said herself:


She got out of bed, called to one of her assistants, and said, “May I please borrow your clothes?” 

Puzzled and unsure what to do, the assistant reluctantly said, “of course!” They traded garments, and the leader went quietly out the of the castle as the sun rose and opened the door in the wall.

She walked the village squares, ate in the local establishments, and asked at every occasion why people thought the kingdom was doing so poorly. The answers were unexpected.

“How would we know? No one knows what those big shots do behind the castle walls.”

“The rulers say we can’t have any more food or supplies, but they keep adding onto the castle and saying how much we’re growing.”

“They live so high up they can’t see what happens here on the ground.”

“We don’t know who’s running this place anymore. All we see are outsiders walking in with fancy clothes and going out – probably taking a lot of our resources.”

The local leaders and administrators even chimed in.

“I can’t help my people get through the day here because I’m in meetings all day in the castle.”

“We go in to report on how we’re doing, but no one tells us what everyone else is doing or why we’re doing it.”

“The rulers come out to walk our areas of the city and engage, but I have to run around making sure people know they’re coming and are ready to show our best. Everyone’s afraid to tell them what we really think, so we just put on the same show each time.”

“No one remembers what life was like before that door was put up.”

Intrigued, vexed, yet still hopeful, the ruler went back to the castle and reflected on what she’d heard that day. She felt like they had already tried everything they knew possible, but the new and unfiltered sentiment she heard was ever more convicting. Without a solution, she decided to sleep on it once more.

Knock, knock, knock, came the sound on a distant door.

She woke the next morning again with a start. It had hit her. They were indeed out of touch, and while it might take some time and effort to fix, she had an idea of where to start.

Everyone in the castle watched in surprise and some alarm as the ruler walked determined toward the main door with a sizable sledgehammer.

“What are you doing?” They shouted.

“I’m taking down this door,” she responded.

Bam. Bam. Bam!

The ruler swung the hammer again and again at the hinges of the great big door they had erected so long ago.

Bam! Bam!! Bam!!! Thud.

The door fell to the ground with a great, echoing sound.  Outside the castle wall, everyone looked inside with surprise and interest at the rulers and others inside the castle that they had only wondered about for years. It was a strange sight.

The ruler announced, “We may have needed this castle and this door once upon a time, and maybe we still do, but we can’t stay in here like this forever. From now on, there will be no door or wall between our people and our leaders. For every time we meet in here, we also meet out there. When we talk in here, we also talk out there. For every time we eat in here, we eat out there. When we need ideas, we welcome them in here – from anyone, anywhere. These are our people, and this is their place.”

While some of the rulers were nervous, it appeared that everyone was generally excited by this decree.

Soon, hope began returning to the kingdom as new ideas were brought to the castle and leaders went out to help launch them. Stories were shared in the village squares and castle alike – tales of triumph and struggle, or life as it was. People began to remember what it meant to be one village, together.


Doors, walls, locks and even castles are not inherently bad or good. In fact, they have been very necessary throughout human history and continue to be. In modern settings and within organizations, leaders often do need privacy or protection from unfortunately real dangers. Mental health is a threat from all sides. Legal requirements, inquisitive competition, and on the bright side: eager, potential partners needing a place to visit. A door is a door designating space for all these reasons and more – for better or worse.

They can, however, become too much the norm. And a closed door between leaders and their people over time can indeed be a dangerous thing.

I once worked with an organization that was inundated with leadership challenges, at least according to the conversations being had in the executive suite. There was a small door in the main hallway that led to a host of executive offices with more closed doors and an abundance of meetings, calls, and hallway conversations. Only a few walked in the door throughout the day, and the same few walked out.

While the other work that we and they did together certainly had positive effects throughout the departments and teams involved, many of the same leadership challenges continued as executives remained stuck in habits that kept them removed from their people. They were busy. Everyone wanted their time. They would “round” as prescribed, meet and greet people in the hallways, but at the end of the day it often became just a very carefully planned “check box” on the list. And frankly, being introverts as many leaders are, they were deathly afraid of having to be put on the spot by the front line without a script.

They weren’t that unique. Many, many organizations create guarded space – even buildings – for leadership as they grow. It’s a necessity for focus, sometimes show neutrality (leading a multitude of entities), and at any rate leading together in closer camaraderie. However, these spaces inevitably become at-risk for being detached and removed from their people and their actual mission. And no survey or engagement campaign in the world can replace leaders being in true community with their people.

One of my colleagues once asked me if there was anything I would have done differently at that particular organization.

My response? Simply this, at least in whimsical spirit:

“I’d probably take that door off its hinges.”


  • Have you ever heard you or your leaders might be ‘out of touch’ with the rest of your organization? True or not, why might it have been said?
  • What doors in your organization – figurative or literal – might currently be keeping people out or in?
  • Do you or your leaders walk the halls as a planned exercise, or could it be said you truly live out in the hallways and areas where teaming is happening?
  • Do people really know you beyond your title, or are you shutting out some parts of yourself that you want to protect?
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