Presidents and Executives Need People Willing to Disagree With Them

Presidents and Executives Need People Willing to Disagree With Them
Good executives create a culture that welcomes dissent over important issues (Photograph by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Photograph by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

It is important for a leader to include people in his inner circle whose power does not derive solely from the leader.

That is the gist of a comment that David Gergen offered as one of the reasons President Obama has stumbled managing some of the major challenges facing his administration, namely the launch of the Affordable Care Act and the intelligence-gathering activities of the National Security Agency.

Gergen, a veteran of four White House administrations, noted that the president’s inner circle of aides, while all very capable, owed their positions to him. While that ensures a degree of loyalty, it cannot make it easy for them to raise tough questions or challenge the president.

Gergen’s advice is relevant for any leader, whether corporate, governmental, or nonprofit. The challenge is for the leader to invite push-back, to welcome people who disagree, and, in fact, to reward them for doing so. Good executives create the expectation that dissent over issues is welcome. Toward that end, strong leaders do the following:

Challenge conventional wisdom. They expect their direct reports to give them the straight talk backed with facts as well as research. They want people to offer insights as well as opinions.

Interact with stakeholders. Good executives talk to their customers regularly; they also spend time with people on the front lines of their organization. They are adept at listening to what is unspoken. If things are not going well, a savvy leader will sense it from the lack of enthusiasm or lack of passion people express.

Praise the prophets. When an executive does get contrary advice, he or she should compliment the person who offered it. Make it known that such straight talk is essential for the leader to make informed decisions.

Of course, the leader has to make the final decision. And sometimes he or she must be the contrarian in the room.

It takes a strong person to speak truth to power. Very often, truths can pierce a leader’s self-image, but if a leader is so insecure as to be surrounded with yes people, then that individual is hardly worthy of leadership. A leader who invites dissent is one who is secure within his or her own self to be the person others embrace as their leader.

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