Naked Executives and Truth Tellers

Naked Executives

“The Emperor’s New Clothes” is a short tale written by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, about two weavers who promise an emperor a new suit of clothes that they say is invisible to those who are unfit for their positions, stupid, or incompetent – while in reality, they make no clothes at all, making everyone believe the clothes are invisible to them. When the emperor parades before his subjects in his new “clothes”, no one dares to say that they do not see any suit of clothes on him for fear that they will be seen as stupid. Finally a child cries out, “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”

When I meet a CEO for the first time, when he or she has asked for my help with some organizational obstacle – my first question is always “Where do you get the truth from?” I want to know who in the CEO’s inner circle has the confidence to speak freely to the head honcho, especially about sensitive issues.

Sometimes, there’s a person on the executive team who’s known the CEO so long that there’s no pretense any more (and typically the truth-teller’s employment agreement makes it hard for the CEO to get mad one day and say ‘Off with his head!’ without financial consequences). Sometimes if a CEO is lucky, the exec team bands together as a unified truth-telling squad, and then staff meetings are often knock-down drag-outs, maddening and emotional but with reality threaded through them.

Sometimes – most of the time – the CEO tells me “Well, I rely on my team to tell me the truth” and then I meet the team, and see the dynamic that keeps them locked together in a dysfunctional chorus of Why No Your Majesty, Your Outfit Looks Perfectly Fine to Me.

It is hard to say unpopular things to powerful people. That should go without saying and every CEO should take that reality into account, but I am here to tell you that many CEOs don’t. Here’s why: they are human. They like to have their ideas applauded. They don’t like to be told “No” or “That plan doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense” or “What have you been smoking?” They have ideas and they want people to act on them.

Let’s face it, we don’t put milquetoast nebbishes in the CEO spot very often. We put commanding, decisive Alpha Males (and a few females) in the CEO’s chair, so we can’t pretend to be surprised when they aren’t spending tons of time begging for their subordinates’ feedback and input. We made our CEO-leadership-style bed, you might say – “we” being the Board of Directors that likes the cut of a hard-hitting CEO’s jib. We put decision-makers in charge, and much or most of the time, any input that’s out of line with the CEO’s vision is marginalized if not squelched outright. That’s a bad thing for customers, employees and shareholders, but it’s common as rain. Here’s why: physics.

Entropy is a feature of the universe and pretty much every closed system. Physical things break down over time – leaves fall off the trees and scatter, and an egg that falls off the edge of a table lies in pieces and yolky puddles on the floor. Broken eggs don’t gather themselves back up into their shells very often. Things tend to fall apart and decay. When an organization is itself a closed system, the same entropy holds sway.

If you are in a position of power, what would you do when someone speaks shocking truth to you?

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