Thursday, October 24, 2013

Good Leaders Don't Do Their Own Brain Surgery

It has become commonplace for our current leaders – in politics, business, the military, etc. - to never admit to any failings, to any gaps in their knowledge, to never show that they rely on others for key expertise.  It seems that the leader must appear to be all-knowledgeable, and let no one else share in the credit.  Any counsel that he might receive, and advice, if and when provided, is provided only in private, out of the line of sight of any media or devoted followers.

Such is the arrogance, the hubris of some of our so-called leaders that it leads me wonder if they do their own dentistry or brain surgery.  But, as an old boss and friend of mine used to say, ‘if you learn nothing else from watching me, learn what not to do.’

Thankfully, such was not always the case.  In Machiavelli’s ‘the Prince,’ written in part to provide guidance to the new Doge of Florence (Lorenzo de Piero de Medici), Machiavelli makes a point of commenting that great Princes have great advisors, advice that has been shortened in modern times to ‘A Prince will be known by the counselors he keeps.’  But what Machiavelli said is more subtle than that, and it has a lesson for anyone in any position of leadership.  (The following comes from Chapter 23 of ‘The Prince.’)

Machiavelli stresses that the Prince (fill in any position you want, from President to Governor to CEO to shop supervisor all the way down to Scout leader), should be both ready to ask for advice and someone who patiently waits to hear the truth.  And the truth needs to be the whole truth.  In fact, Machiavelli tells the Prince that he should be displeased with anyone who withholds the truth – for any reason.

Machiavelli also notes that a Prince who is not wise cannot have wise advisors.  If by some chance a less than wise leader finds himself with wise advisors, he will soon lose de facto control to them.  Machiavelli is adamant that history has shown that a Prince with poor advisors is not wise.  No matter what you may think about a leader, if he surrounds himself with mediocre advisors and assistants, he is himself mediocre.  And when you find a leader who is surrounded by poor counselors, you are right in believing he is neither a competent nor a wise leader.  If it is possible, he should be replaced.

If on the other hand you find wise counselors, acting in the nation’s or organization’s interest, and serving the leader (President, CEO, etc.) the root of that is the leader’s wisdom, not that of the counselors.

Leaders who respond to problems by suggesting that they did the right thing, but their less than adequate deputies didn’t know what they were doing, or that ‘someone made mistakes’ and thereby shift the blame are simply trying to hide their own failings.  Every leader will have deputies who make mistakes.  How quickly the leader owns up to those mistakes and when necessary corrects the errant deputies – and perhaps moves him if need be - is a good indicator of how capable a leader he really is.

The better, the more capable a leader is, the more he will be seen to seek out top-flight counselors.  But this is an easily deceptive practice; many leaders seek to confuse by selecting counselors with known biases.  Instead of choosing bright and capable counselors who will present them with the truth, they choose those who will present them with what they – the leaders – already believe; the real truth is withheld from the ‘boss’ so that he is ‘protected,’ the accepted truth is never challenged, and the hubris of the leader is never challenged.

But great leader are willing to brook disagreements and accept hard truths.  Great leaders know that problems only get fixed when addressed: the faster they are recognized, the faster they will be addressed, and thus the faster they will be corrected.  As you take on more and more responsibility that behavior requires ever more intestinal fortitude, delegating authority to your subordinates so that they can execute your orders, but accepting responsibility for their actions, accepting the truth and moving quickly to address real problems and solving them. 

The one good thing in all this is that such behavior is learned behavior.  You can practice it every day; from day one, begin with the simplest things: choose the best subordinates, delegate authority, trust your subordinates, accept responsibility, demand honesty.  After a while, these too can become habits – and good ones.


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