The Naked Truth – Leadership and Self Deception

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Ever had one of those dreams where you’re out in public wearing only your undergarments, (or worse nothing at all)? I have.

Bizarre settings are always involved like my high school lunch room which is for some reason now occupied by coworkers spanning my last three jobs.

The worst part about these dreams for me is that I can’t figure out how I got there in the first place or why I forgot to put clothes on. I’m just there. The other weird thing is that usually no one else seems to notice.

I’m sure there is some meaning to these dreams. A friend once told me that it could mean I was dealing with a fear of failure or being exposed. I think maybe I’m just harboring resentment about the bad cafeteria food.

There’s a popular Hans Christian Andersen story that most of us know well titled, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. If you are unfamiliar with the story here’s a quick synopsis. A couple of highly regarded tailors come to town. Tell the king they can make him a new suit for the big parade that is unlike any other. Only those who are truly worthy can see the amazing cloth the tailors plan to use. Ego kicks in. King signs up for the new suit. Even though he realizes he can’t see the cloth he’s publicly committed to the project so he stays the course.

No one else can see the special cloth the tailors are supposedly using but they won’t admit it because that would mean embarrassing themselves, (and the king). Everyone goes along with the charade. Parade ensues. King marches proudly down Main Street. The townspeople pretend not to notice. Finally, a small child yells out, “Hey! Why is the king in his skivvies!?” The illusion is broken but the parade must go on.

The modern-day version of this story occurs far too often in organizations around the world. Someone convinces the leader that a pet project will be great for the company and therefore great for his or  her reputation. Leader pushes the project to the front of the resource pool.  Team members see  flaws in the project but fear being labeled as incompetent or negative and so choose not to speak up. The project fails to produce the desired results but the team pretends not to notice.

Finally, even if someone in the organization does point out the fact that something isn’t quite right, the information is quickly abandoned. Too much has been invested to stop now. It’s a matter of pride. In fact, sometimes a pet project will be dutifully supported in production for years even though behind the scenes it becomes a running joke. The parade must go on.

Sound familiar? The reality is that we are all susceptible to self-deception and isolation. Even when we think we are being sincere and acting in the best interest of the organization we may, in fact, be wearing our metaphorical birthday suits. Only no one will tell us because they don’t want to burst our bubble.

Three ways to avoid the “naked truth”:

  1. Consider the source – Is the project tailored for your ego or for the best interests of the organization? Who stands to gain from your support? Will the project stand on its own merits? Don’t surround yourself with “yes” people or cave into pressure from the “experts”. Make sure there is really is some cloth going into that suit.
  2. Impose your own barriers – Intentionally put yourself in a position where you can’t dictate decisions or priorities without some level of open deliberation. You may have to make the final call or act quickly in an emergency but that should be the exception, not the norm.  Make sure you engage key people in the organization to provide candid feedback. Don’t make it easy for people to pretend they see a suit that isn’t there.
  3. Keep some Kryptonite handy – Make sure there is at least one person in the organization that you can trust to speak the truth to you no matter how passionate you may be about a project or idea. Invite them to be honest with you and commit to doing the same for them. Encourage them to critique your plans, your communications and your point of view. Make sure they are willing to be an “unreasonable friend”, be prepared to listen and, if necessary, cancel the parade.

An isolated leader is dangerous to themselves and the people they lead. We’ve all seen painful examples of  the damage that can be unleashed by an unchallenged ego.

I like to imagine that these leaders didn’t start out that way, they gradually allowed their personal accountability to slip away until they were naked in the middle of Main Street. A few basic precautions can help you avoid the isolation trap. Maybe there is a leader you know and care about who needs an intervention before the parade.

Do them a favor. Tell them there is no suit and this isn’t a dream.

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