Elevating Excellence

A vital characteristic in a senior executive is the ability to tell truth to power.  At first blush, you probably think, of course my staff is honest—and they are. The issue is the ability to respectfully disagree with the leader and be able to articulate why.

One of my favorite television shows is The West Wing. (If you haven’t seen it, it is about the interactions of the president of the United States and his senior staff.) In the show, it is very common for the senior staff to debate the merits of a particular course of action in front of the president. The president then uses that input and debate (pro and con) in making his decision. Oftentimes, that debate involves taking a position you believe to be right, knowing that the president likely disagrees. In one great episode, a new member of the staff was sent into the Oval Office to discuss some action that he was told the president wanted to take, but which the new staff member knew was the wrong thing to do. In reality (or the reality of the show), the president didn’t want to take the proposed course of action. The entire exercise was a test to see if the new guy on staff would tell the president he was wrong. That is telling truth to power. Your staff is useless if they won’t do it. You need independent thinkers who will contribute to the dialogue and debate and help the organization’s leader find the right answer.

You need independent thinkers who will help the leader find the right answer.

Just as important as truth-telling to power is the ability of your staff to have the debate and when it is over and the decision has been made, for everyone to say, “Great, let’s go get it done!” without any feelings about who won or lost the debate. It is not about winning or losing or personal agendas. It is about a team all contributing the value of their expertise to assist a leader in making the final decision.

If your people have a hard time embracing decisions they didn’t make or decisions they didn’t agree with, you are going to have a management problem. While management by consensus can be effective, at the end of the day decisions have to be made, respected, and acted upon. The goal, at the end of the day, is results. The success of the team and the results achieved by the team are far more important than bruised egos.

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