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How is Mr. Magoo Syndrome Impacting Your Leadership?

Mr. Magoo Syndrome is no laughing matter for leaders

Have you prepared yourself and your organization for the increased pace and impact of constant change?

We have heard the term “reckoning” used a lot lately. Whether it’s budget crises, equity, low enrollment and retention, poor student outcomes, affordability, or “the great resignation,” higher education leaders are being held to greater degrees of accountability – and more immediately--than in the past. Have you  accurately assessed the changes around you and adjusted your leadership actions accordingly?


Mr. Magoo, a fictional animated television character in the 1960’s was extremely near-sighted. His stubborn refusal to admit his problem and wear corrective glasses resulted in chaos. The IMDb synopsis of the program states, “His wimpy nephew, Waldo, is afraid of telling his uncle the truth. Everyone around Mr. Magoo has reasons to be afraid and will suffer the consequences of Magoo's actions.”  As an example, despite all the warnings of peril around him, Mr. Magoo would cavalierly drive on the sidewalk, narrowly missing elderly people and babies in strollers.


Even as a kid, I wondered, “Why does he keep doing the same thing over and over even though it is dangerous to him and everyone else? Why doesn’t he just wear his glasses?” This is not about poking fun at people with visual impairments or assuming they are insensitive and incompetent. This is about a leader’s obligation to pay attention to both the warning signs around them and the impact of their expectations, decisions, words and actions on the environment, even when they themselves are personally unscathed by their own behavior. This is about not making excuses for those who choose not to mitigate their potential to cause havoc. How are you impacting your environment?

Symptoms of Mr. Magoo Syndrome


While not the first doctor to diagnose Mr. Magoo Syndrome, I have identified a few challenges associated with it and they can vary: (a) we may not know we have it (because others are too afraid to tell us) and therefore we are unaware of the problems we are causing, (b) we deny the problems in the face of evidence to the contrary and proceed as if everything is just dandy, (c) we assume our positive traits and successes make up for our faults, or (d) we blame everyone else (why are they on the sidewalk?), and expect them to solve the problems we create. None of these options are sustainable for today’s leaders.


Leaders who still believe they have the option of maintaining pre-2020 mindsets and making organizational changes without consideration for the new capacity of the entire organizational ecosystem of people, culture, resources, systems, policies, etc., may have contracted Mr. Magoo Syndrome. Leaders who are cavalier, indecisive or unreasonable about their mandates and expectations may be running the institution into a ditch as a result of this syndrome.


If constituents are forced to predict a leader’s openness to input based on the weather, their horoscope, or the leader’s morning coffee consumption, their leader may have Mr. Magoo Syndrome. When stakeholders must waste countless hours and resources distilling every nuance of a complex issue into a cliff note presentation in language precisely calibrated for the leader’s ears and then forced to run alongside them and compete with the cellphone to deliver it, Mr. Magoo Syndrome may be the problem.


Mr. Magoo Syndrome is no laughing matter for leaders


Are people around you afraid to speak? Do they have to contort themselves into a pretzel to have an audience with you? Are you aware of the decisions, lead-time, and resources required for frontline staff to achieve goals? Do you communicate in a timely manner?  Do you have the courage and humility to ask your most trusted advisors when, not if, you are showing signs of Mr. Magoo Syndrome or do you just need to put on your glasses?

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