For several years I’ve be considering writing an article about today’s leadership and their relationship to the cautionary tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes. As they often say, “there is no time like the present.”
If you are not familiar with this folktale created by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, it tells the tale of two swindlers who are posing as weavers who arrive at the capital city where the emperor resides. They offer to supply him with magnificent clothes that are invisible to those who are stupid and incompetent. The emperor decides to hire them and they set up looms and begin their work. The emperor and his officials visit them to check on their progress. Each sees the looms are empty, but pretend otherwise to avoid being thought of foolish. Soon the weavers report that the emperor’s suit is finished. They pretend to dress him and he sets off in a procession before the entire city. The townsfolk uncomfortably go along with the pretense, not wanting to appear inept or stupid, until one child blurts out that the emperor is wearing nothing at all. The people then realize that everyone has been fooled. Although startled, the emperor continues the procession, walking more proudly than ever.
If you are asking yourself, “what does this have to do with today’s leaders”, then I really recommend that you read the previous paragraph again.
How often have you been in a meeting where a leader is present and they say something obviously incorrect or something you know will slow down or completely hinder the progress of the work being done? Also, if you are not a leader yourself, you find yourself sitting there and watching as leaders and other employees in the room simply co-sign whatever that leader has said or done.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let’s stop for a moment and talk about the leader. Are they surrounding themselves with people who always shake their heads yes – and never no? Does the leader need to put ego aside and perhaps ask, “Are these “yes” people working in my best interest, or are they working to promote their own interests”? Even worse, are they afraid of me? Occasionally when someone is agreeing with everything you say and do, it might be wise to ask yourself (leader) is that really because they do agree, or do they have some agenda or fear that I am not be aware of? Just like the swindlers in The Emperor’s New Clothes, there was always a hidden agenda in what the swindlers said and did, but the Emperor wanted to believe them because they were so convincing and spoke directly to his ego.
Why wouldn’t people tell the Emperor the clothes did not exist? They were convinced that if they did, they would be labeled as incompetent and stupid. Now relate this to what you see happening with employees every day. Let’s just say you come up with a better idea about how to complete a task, but you are not in the leadership circle. How often when you have presented your idea have you been made to feel foolish or incompetent? It’s probably more than one time. Since none of us want to be made to look foolish or incompetent, we are smart enough to take the course of least resistance and just stop presenting our ideas, and just go along with the way things are.
But all is not lost. Leaders have the opportunity every day to turn this type of dynamic around. Let’s rewrite The Emperor’s New Clothes. Supposing the emperor was someone who valued the opinions of the people in his court, and because he did value them, he relied on them to be honest and forthright. These two swindlers came to the court to tell the emperor about these wonderful clothes they could make for him. Let’s say the emperor agreed to give them an opportunity to do just that: weave him some new garments. Time went on and one of the people in the court came to him and told him, that although the weavers look like they were working, in fact there was nothing being made. If the emperor valued the opinion of the person who brought the news, he would make sure that the swindlers/weavers were immediately banned from the court. And the emperor would have avoided the embarrassment of looking like a fool in front all the people in his country.
The good news is, there are people in organizations who will not be made to feel incompetent or stupid for what they see as true and right. The child that called out, “the emperor has no clothes” is one of those individuals who is trying to make the rest of the people in the kingdom see the truth. Sometimes it works, and sometimes people will just go along pretending everything is just fine. However, that should not stop employees from stating what they believe is true and right. These are the employees who really want to make your organization the best it can be.
So leaders, listen and hear what your employees are saying. Value their ideas. Build an organizational culture that rewards honesty and hard work. If organizational culture is constructive (rewarding achievement, self-actualizing, valuing people and encouraging them, and creating an environment where people work together in harmony and productivity) you will see how the organization will become revitalized and productive at all levels. A leader who creates this type of organizational culture will find the employees will be open and honest with them and in turn, the leader will feel comfortable being open and honest with the employees. Put ego aside and don’t be afraid to admit when you are wrong. Employees are not asking you to accept every idea they come up with, but they are asking you to listen without judgment and give them a chance to help you make the organization the best it can be.