The Key to Leadership Success, “Mirror, mirror on the wall…”

NOTE: This article was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle.

How do you as an executive or leader get honest feedback?  How do you get the unfiltered truth?

The solution can be as simple as a polite, “please tell me what I don’t want to hear.”

Then, receive that information with a smile, and realize that a friend is a person who stabs you in the front.

Honest feedback can mean the life or death of your company or project. A leader who does not have accurate information is like the pilot of an airliner flying with their eyes wide closed.

Leaders need to ask themselves how do I find out what I don’t want to know?”

People being creative in an elevatorHere are 4 things that executives and leaders can start doing today.  I did these when I was a CEO.

1. If you get bad news, immediately smile and thank the person, and acknowledge how much you appreciate that they took the effort to tell you.

As a CEO, you don’t want to become known as a Chief “Execution” Officer who shoots messengers.

2. At the end of every meeting ask the question, “Is there anything else that we need to hear or talk about.”

This is where you can open the “spigot” of what may be on their minds, and smoldering under the surface.

3. Every day, ask your employees and your team, “please tell me what I don’t want to hear.”

Then, receive that information in a friendly manner (again, smile), and realize that a friend is a person who stabs you in the front.

4. Finally, remind your team that you work for THEM to provide the things (coaching, training, etc.) that they need to succeed, and you want hear what they need.

If you are a CEO, consider firing your board of directors, and replacing that group with a “board of customers” (not a focus group) to whom you would report (they can fire you).

Your board of customers will tell you how to make your business a success, if you just listen.

Fire your board of directors and replace with board of customers

You now report to this Board of Customers

This  group’s first suggestion might be to remove some of the words from your website bio, and replace those words with your email and telephone number so you can hear when your company is off course (or on course).

Remember, you are are the captain of an airliner (company), and you must have feedback regarding how you are doing, otherwise, you are flying blind.

I teach that leadership solutions can be found by looking back in history, and by looking at how other countries and companies solved your problem.

The lesson in leadership feedback can be found on your children’s bookshelf, and it is titled “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” by Hans Christian Andersen, which was written 182 years ago.

The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian AndersenLooking back 600 years in history, we can find another idea for leadership.  It was the court jester (or, motley fool) who was hired to say, “the emperor has no clothes.”

The court jester was considered a leader’s most important adviser, and was someone who presented the cold-hard facts in a way that got their attention with laughs.

Leadership, creativity and the court jester

The leaders at that time relied on their jester to use humor point out the folly and mistakes that they were about to make.

The court jester’s primary job was to challenge (speak truth to power)  the leaders decisions, and secondly provide entertainment. They were not only given permission to speak freely, it was part of their job description.

For example, if the King of England was plotting to invade France, the Jester might joke, “Sire, why bother, you have plenty of fine wine in your cellar, and if you invade, the blood of the sons of England will flow like red wine.”

We all have access to court jesters today, they are our comedians, and they fill a vital role in challenging the actions of government and business, and pointing out folly in our personal daily lives.

Pay attention to them, they just might prevent you and our society from making mistakes.

Comedian Steve Colbert


Leave a Comment