The Executive’s New Clothes

We have all read Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”  Wikipedia explains the story in a succinct and cogent matter:

A vain Emperor who cares about nothing except wearing and displaying clothes hires two swindlers who promise him the finest, best suit of clothes from a fabric invisible to anyone who is unfit for his position or “hopelessly stupid.” The Emperor’s ministers cannot see the clothing themselves, but pretend that they can for fear of appearing unfit for their positions and the Emperor does the same. Finally the swindlers report that the suit is finished, they mime dressing him and the Emperor marches in procession before his subjects. The townsfolk play along with the pretense, not wanting to appear unfit for their positions or stupid.  hen a child in the crowd, too young to understand the desirability of keeping up the pretense, blurts out that the Emperor is wearing nothing at all and the cry is taken up by others. The Emperor cringes, suspecting the assertion is true, but continues the procession.

In many workplaces, those who tell the leader what they want to hear are rewarded for their loyalty. Those who tell the leader what they may not want to hear are banished for being the bearer of bad news.

Surrounded by toadies, the executive proudly displays his new ideas. The swindlers who sold him the silly ideas for a small fortune are reinforced by the ministers, his senior management team. The townspeople, the rank and file, go along, too. But not everyone. There is always an adult mature enough to play the role of the child and say what no one else will say: the leader, the executive, has no clothes, clothes being a metaphor for good ideas.

The top is a very lonely place to be. It is human for the leader to surround him- or herself with those who are loyal to him or her. It is understandable but regrettable.

Hearing criticism is generally unpleasant. But it is far better than parading naked in your workplace.

If you are a leader, assume your subordinates will tell you what you want to hear. It is your job to convince them what you want to hear is what they think you don’t want to hear.

Talk openly with your team. Tell them that you appreciate their support. Make clear that includes telling you when you are missing the mark.

Be even more direct. “I don’t want to be the Emperor in the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes.’ Tell me what everyone is thinking but no one has said, yet.”

When such feedback is explicitly elicited, the leader may end up a successful executive after all. But that’s only because he or she had the strength to be non-imperious and hear what a weaker person would avoid.

This article is not legal advice and should not be construed as applying to specific factual situations.

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photo credit: Kaotiqua via photopin cc