The Leaders and the Gatekeepers

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Have you ever noticed that truly successful, self-made people, who achieved higher highs in their profession and their life, are, usually the humblest ones too? They treat others with the utmost respect and are quick to point out what’s good in people. On the other hand, those who only have limited power in their hands, enjoy using it to control others and to give them a hard time, as if almost rubbing their power in people’s faces.

I encountered this for the first time many years ago when I was working as a reporter in my teens. My friend and I set out to interview a head of a governmental department for our newspaper story. We made an appointment and arrived at the designated time, all excited about our big event. The ministry was located inside a formidable structure, with a restricted access guarded with a booth where an equally formidable gatekeeper sat.

We approached the booth, introduced ourselves and our employer, and asked to see Mr. A for our scheduled appointment. The aging concierge with a stern face checked our ID’s, as it turned out, only to brush us off – he announced that we arrived at an inopportune time – it was the lunch hour at the ministry. Somewhat surprised at this turn of events, we nevertheless left the premises to return in an hour. The second time around the man in the booth was still determined to keep us out of his workplace by claiming that the “big boss was enjoying a nice cup of tea and was not interested in seeing anyone”.  At this point, we protested that we were already late for our appointment and were not going to miss it entirely. To this, the concierge retorted with the most unbelievable objection we had ever heard: “To Mr. A every sip of his tea is far more important than any visitors”.

My friend and I turned to each other to make sure we hadn’t misheard the statement. Once we had a chance to recuperate from its absurdity, we finally managed to get this watchdog to allow us the access to the phone. We promised we would head out at once if we only heard the same thing from the minister himself. To our delight, the minister not only answered the phone after the first ring – he was more than ready to see us and immediately sent someone to lead the way to his office. The whole meeting went extremely well from the warmest welcome and a heartfelt apology on behalf of his overzealous staff member to the most engaging discussion which in its turn lead to a great story for our newspaper. Mr. A responded to our questions with such a genuine interest and treated us with so much respect that we forgot we were a couple of teenagers on our first real job. Instead, we felt as dignified professionals working on a worthwhile project capable of making a difference in the world.

That day I became distinctly aware of the profound differences between a true leader and someone who capped his potential at a mediocre level – the occurrence I since then called the Gatekeeper’s phenomenon. This encounter taught me an important lesson – when someone is trying too hard to demonstrate their power, it means that in reality, they know they have very little of it.

Now, this is not meant in any way to diminish the role of the modern-day gatekeepers existing in our workplaces. It is, in fact, a real term used in administrative job descriptions. But its function is often misinterpreted. A gatekeeper’s role is not to block the public from coming into or otherwise contacting workplaces. Their role is to provide clear communication channels and to be a liaison between their organization and the public. They help to maintain a smooth workflow, avoid unnecessary disruptions and handle all requests for information in a professional manner, which allows for the most effective and efficient use of organizational resources. Under no circumstances, a gatekeeper should be abusing the power they have got by brushing people off and making them feel insignificant.

Having said that, there will definitely be situations where an organization’s gatekeeper (an administrative assistant, a receptionist or an office manager) will not be able to offer help – and that is understandable. But the least they can do is to treat everyone they meet with honor and, as a bare minimum, – do no harm. Doing no harm is one of the simplest but most profound principles my Mom taught my siblings and me early on in our lives, right along with another important lesson – on how we should treat others the way we want to be treated. In my experience, these two lessons are what anyone who sees themselves as a leader needs to master.

What does it mean to you to treat people the way you would like to be treated? And are there any examples that stand out to you – whether it’s a case of true leadership or an example of the gatekeeper’s phenomenon?

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  1. Natella, your post reminded me of the situation I have been in back in my twenties. I worked for a company where the owner’s personal driver took it upon himself to act as a watchdog around the office. What he was doing – day in day out he walked around the premises closely watching the rest of the employees do their daily work. He said he was making sure we were “gentle enough” with the company computers and other equipment. I believe this is a perfect example of someone with a Gatekeeper mentality, obsessed with proving his worth through controlling others.

    1. This is interesting K. I’m wondering if it may have been the Owner who abused his power by using his personal driver as a way to check on his employees daily production? The driver may have simply been doing what he was told to do and reporting back to his boss? It would also have been interesting to see what would have happened if you as an individual or the entire team as a group challenged his authority to see if he actually had a measure of power and chose to abuse it or if it was all for show? A challenging experience as a young worker nonetheless.

      1. Actually, you have a strong point, Jason.
        Now that I’m thinking about it, the driver could have been simply carrying out what he was told, basically doing the boss’s dirty work. But they were going so smoothly about it, and the owner never made any comments that could imply he had anything to do with it.
        At the time I myself wasn’t even experienced enough to make those connections based on my observations.

    2. A very interesting example K. This driver could have been acting on his own volition to prove as you said his worth to his seniors and to also demonstrate to his coworkers that he was closer to the owner than the rest of you. And he could have been directly serving the owner’s agenda. I have actually seen both type of situations unfold in front of my eyes. There are gatekeepers who love to rub their “power” in people’s faces and there are unscrupulous owners who use their employees to do their dirty work as Jason suggested.

  2. Throughout my career in Professional Sales I’ve encountered many gatekeepers and have developed several successful strategies for breaking through the gate to meet with actual decision makers. One of the main reasons that a gatekeeper behaves in such a manner is to maintain and protect the perception of their importance…Regardless of whether their role is actually important to anyone or anything, perception is key. I always work to maintain that perception of importance and save face. In return they typically relax their guard and allow me to reach my objective.
    The other aspect that often gets overlooked is that a gatekeeper can also act as an influencer for the person or people they are guarding. Treating them with a lack of respect may result in unforeseen consequences.

    1. Jason,

      In the line of work you do sounds like it’s a very important skill – to know how deal with gatekeepers. Sounds like you have mastered their language. I like what you said about treating them with respect and saving the face as a key to successfully getting to the level of the organization that you are interested to reach – the decision makers.

  3. Wonderful post, Natella! The saying “Treat others the way you would like to be treated ” I have chosen as my motto and one of the rules I try to live my life by. In order to get respect from someone you must give respect to them. You can not go to a restaraunt, treat the waiter with disrespect and be impolite without expecting the same treatment back. If you are nice to a person they are more likely to be nice back to you and they can be very helpful with things you need.