Do you know the children’s story, The Emperor’s New Clothes? The story tells the tale of a vain king who surrounded himself with people who only agreed with him. Two swindlers, knowing he exclusively wore the finest cloththing, told him of this exquisite magical cloth that only the brightest, most refined and truly regal people could see. The king could not see the cloth, because there was no cloth. But being vain and not wanting to appear less worthy, he proclaimed it the most beautiful cloth he had ever seen. He asked his trusted advisors their opinion of the material. Now, of course, they also saw nothing. However, out of fear of displeasing the king they all marveled at its beauty. The swindlers worked diligently to create a royal garment for the king out of the magical cloth. When it was finished, the king donned the garment and paraded through the streets. The townspeople were shocked at first, but not wanting to displease the king or to appear unworthy, they praised the outfit. The king strutted proudly through the streets until one little boy pointed and yelled. “The king is naked!”. The parade stopped as everyone gasped. The declaration of truth stopped the king in his tracks as he realized he had allowed himself to be tricked. Mortified, the king hastily returned to the castle, realizing in his quest to be right, he had in fact allowed himself to be disgraced.
This was a child’s tale. Yet it contained so many lessons on deceipt, vanity, complicity and blind obedience. But the one lesson that stuck in my mind over the years pertains to leadership and forming the team that leads with you.
THE KING SURROUNDED HIMSELF ONLY WITH PEOPLE WHO BLINDLY AGREED WITH HIM.
That decision was the beginning of his downfall. No one on his leadership team challenged him, even when it was obvious that he was making a disastrous choice. The hero of the story, the young child, acted honestly; unrestrained by the niceties of decorum and “polite society”; freed from the concept of “the boss is always right.” This child blurted (unfiltered) the one thing everyone was thinking. While his declaration embarrassed the king, it also stopped the parade of indecent exposure and more importantly taught the king a valuable lesson.
I have seen powerful leaders fall into the same trap as the emperor. So convinced that they had all the answers to everything, they insured obedience through the building of a team of “Yes” men and women. I have also seen those leaders make extremely poor decisions at times (as we all do). These poor decisions often resulted in unintended fall-out that affected them and their agency. I used to criticize those leaders for those decisions, but I also blamed the team surrounding these leaders for not being honest and frank with their boss.
Seeing the above scenario play out multiple times in my career, I was determined not to fall into that trap. Don’t get me wrong, I knew as a leader I had to be competent, fearless and able to make good timely decisions every day. But I also acknowledged my humanity. I knew that ( as much as I would like for it to be true) I did not have all the answers. And worse than appearing less than omniscient, I feared that, unchecked, I could be walking the streets naked.
I wish I could say I was immediately successful in my goal. But I was not. As a line supervisor and even manager I fell nto the trap, thinking that once I made a decision I had to hold fast, less I lose the confidence of my staff. Yes, I was a strong leader, but was I a good one? I was blessed, when as a manager, I had some equally strong (headstrong) supervisors who had no problem voicing their opinions. When one of the supervisors disagreed with a change I was implementing in the program, I wanted to discount them. Because as the manager I had much more experience than them. But when I stopped and actually listened to them, I realized that the timing for the program shift had been wrong. While I had focused on the content of the program implementation, I had not paid enough attention to some issues that needed to be addressed before the changes could be effective. Amending the decision saved our program from some potential unnecessary consequences. The input was not only valuable to me in that situation but served as the point in my career where I realized I needed a little conflict to sharpen my awareness and to help me to grow as a leader.
From that experience, I started instructing my team to be honest, up-front and bold in their approach when they didnt agree with a move or decision I made. My only caveat to them was to bring their concern to me in an appropriate place and in an appropriate manner. I often joked with them that they had a 10% chance of changing my mind, but that I would diligently listen to their point of view. In actuality, the discussion was often invaluable to both of us.
We have been drilled to believe that as a leader, the weight of the program outcomes landed solely on our shoulders. Therefore, we are taught to make strong decisions, not to appear easily swayed and to stand firm. Unfortunately, those qualities also make us appear unyielding, autocratic and closed. I learned the hard way that it was important to not only surround myself with a diverse and competent team, but to also foster a practice of honesty.
Not everyone will feel comfortable enough, at first, to voice dissenting opinions so you have to listen with intent and to know your team. Be able to discern when you are getting lip service and when you are getting honesty. Be mindful that lip service is not necessarily offered to purposefully obstruct decisions. Sometimes It is because the team member isn’t fully assured it is safe to disagree. As a leader, you have to own that and address it. Otherwise, like the emperor, your team will allow you to make unwise decisions with no offers of differing views or options.
It is also important to know that you will sometimes have team members, especially in newer, inexperienced workers or supervisors that are autocratic and closed themselves. They will not feel heard no matter how much you listen to them and try to explain the why. Unless you agree with them every time, you will not reach them. You will be perceived as not listening to them because you are not agreeing. They can be exhausting and you will be tempted to shut them out and move on. As long as they are on your team, it is important that they get the same opportunities as the other team members to be heard. You cannot control their maladaptive beliefs, but you can conduct yourself consistently and purposefully with your eyes on the vision for your program or agency.
Over the years, as my positions of leadership grew, so did the quality of leaders on my team. I currently have one of the best team of leaders I have ever had. They are not afraid to share their opinions with me. Proactively, we try to make most decisions that affect agency functioning as a team to gain a unified platform on an issue. But occasionally there are some decisions that are more immediate And mine alone. That is when I can trust that if a team member is concerned about the outcome they will come to me like the little boy in the story. They point out their perceptions of how the decision may render me and the agency vulnerable. And frankly, sometimes (ok often) it is uncomfortable and hard to hear. But it is always helpful. Even when I do not agree with them. I listen. I hear them. And I learn. Every time I learn something about them, something about me, and something about the point of discussion. I don’t always change the decision. Sometimes I find that the dissenting opinion has to do with my not fully explaining the “why”. But sometimes their point is so valid, uncovering finer details to the situation I had missed, that I do change my stance, thus saving us all from the outcomes of a poor decision. And if I fall back into unilateral decision making (again, it is a constant mindset) I have a couple of team members who will point it out.
Decisions that are not emergent need to have the necessary time devoted to them. Not every decision should be rushed. These are the issues that are dicussed as an executive team. If, in the course of the discussion, an executive team member voices a dissension, we engage in exchange of conversation, making the necessary time to fully explore the issue. Often these discussions occur in a team meeting so that all views are elicited. These exchanges build the strength of the team and the strength of the decision.
So, the moral of the Emperor’s New Clothes points out about the downfalls of vanity and pride. But the moral of this blog is “dont surround yourself only with people who will tell you what you want to hear”. You will hear from both sides. Resist The temptation to only listen to the yes people. The results can be dangerous. Lend your ear to The dissenters as well. Cultivate people who can point to you and say “Wait a minute! Something’s not right.”. Then begin the process of listening. The discussion that will ensue may be invaluable. And we, as leaders, are better for it. I know I am.