The CEO Without A Cloth

By Uju Onwuzulike Chief Results Officer, MCL

“The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable”……James Garfield

The lessons of the old fable of the “Emperor without a cloth” may not have been learnt by many organizations. Here goes the story. A tailor appealed to the Emperor’s vanity enough to convince him that he was wearing a new suit made of such priceless fabric that mere mortals could not see it, when in fact he was wearing no clothes. All the people in the kingdom were so intimidated by the possible result of contradicting the Emperor in his belief that they convinced themselves that he was wearing a fine new suit – they just couldn’t see it. Out of the entire kingdom, only one small child was brave enough to state the obvious, thus exposing the tailor’s fraudulent claim- and sending the emperor dashing for cover.

This situation happens in organizations on daily basis, and it won’t be an overstatement to say that many organizations have gone under because no one is telling the leader the truth. When leaders, CEOs, and managers have positioned themselves in a situation where people will only tell them what they want to hear regardless of the negative impacts to the organization, there is a big problem. There is no one that is perfect including the leaders or CEOs. More so there is no leader that does not require help and as such, when people are not telling them the truth, they are not helping them – they are setting them up for failures.

In the true sense of it, every CEO will want to make a decision that will help in growing the organization. A key question to ask is: would there be a time a leader will make a decision or take some positions that will not work in the best interest of the organization? The answer is yes. What then happened to the executive management team or the managers that were part of the meeting? They all played along the line of the CEO and did all they could to avoid telling him the truth, to avoid telling him the dark side of his decisions. But one might ask: are they people that had the meeting with the CEO to be blamed? In fairness you might not blame them if that has been the culture of the organization and the CEO sees truth telling to mean questioning his authority or intelligence. But whether the truth is told or not, something wrong is still going on with the organization.

Now, and sadly, the analogy of the Emperor without a cloth exists in both the public and private sectors. The key lesson for CEOs is that if as a result of fear or whatever reason, their people inside did not tell them their “vulnerability or nakedness”, the people outside (competitors) will see it clearly and will use it to work against your organization. One trait I would eagerly encourage CEOs and business owners to have is the ability to accept what is not working, what needs to be changed, what is detrimental to the organizational growth – and that comes when they encourage people to tell them the truth in a respectful way. Remember, the number one person in the organization to model this culture of truth telling and acceptance is the CEO. This is because whatever he does becomes the culture. And like I always tell CEOs in my strategic culture transformation programs that the CEO themselves have the most important role to play in setting the culture of the organization.

Not telling the CEO the truth when things are going wrong or when he or she needs it the most is akin to seeing him putting his or her hands on fire and telling him/her to push it more inside because it is cooler inside. Those that tell the leaders or CEOs what they want to hear, the hangers-on, the fawners, the sycophants are not your real followers – and do not care if the business survives or not. If it does not survive they will walk away and walk into another job, unlike a CEO of let say a bank, if the business dies, where will he or she walk into?

Final notes: Remember the words of Spencer Johnson, “honesty is telling the truth to other people”. As a CEO, Business Leader or even the President of a country, it is the honest men or women that won’t want your downfall, and the only avenue they have is by telling you the truth. So let your new mantra when seeking for a feedback be “tell me your mind, and don’t pull your punches”. Lastly when the punches come, accept it and build on it, and you will be an exceptional leader or CEO.

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