How To Help a Leader Get Back on Track

The President Barack Obama whom the nation saw delivering the State of the Union address was a very different President than people have seen in the year since he took office. At turns confident, defiant, and challenging to both Republicans and Democrats alike, Obama showed the kind of commitment to change and ability to inspire that helped him get elected. Gone was the Obama whose eagerness to get anything passed on health-care reform caused him to compromise on core principles and turn over too much power to individual members of Congress.

How does a leader who seems to have lost his or her way, as many thought the President had, find it again? What serves as a chief executive's intellectual and moral GPS? Often, it's a cadre of trusted advisers both courageous and comfortable enough to push the boundaries of traditional reporting structures, says Professor Walter Scott, who teaches leadership and board governance at the Kellogg School of Management. He recently spoke with's Patricia O'Connell about the kind of dynamics between a leader and his or her closest, most trusted advisers that make such change possible and visible. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

Q: Let's look at Obama as a CEO, if you will, and his advisers as his board. Granted, there is a big difference, because a board can fire a CEO, and Obama's "board" can't fire him—just the opposite. But Obama has never made a secret of his reliance on close advisers. So, using that imperfect analogy, how could Obama's "board" have helped him get back on track, and how do they help him stay there? And how does anyone tell someone in a position of great power and authority when they're not doing a great job?

A: Of course, who you appoint as a board or as advisers is the most critical piece of the puzzle. If you want strong, outspoken, and relevant opinions, you should pick self-confident people of substantial intellect and sound judgment.

It is critical for the leader to decide what he wants from advisers and convey that clearly in both words and actions. An environment has to be created that encourages open and frank discussion. The message must be reinforced tirelessly. Does he welcome people who help frame issues, act as devil's advocates, challenge the consensus, and provide feedback? What happens in meetings to people who disagree sends a powerful message. Good advisers should act as a window to the external world and provide perspectives others don't have.

In any position of great authority, there is a tremendous propensity for isolation. Everything seems designed to insulate the leader from what is really going on. If you want to break that down, you need honest and secure messengers. You need people who can take you on with impunity. People who will say: "Look, Mr. President, I think we blew it." Or: "Look, sir, things aren't working the way we want them to, so maybe we should change our approach."

Do you think leaders, whether in government or the private sector, are clear about letting the people around them know what the expectations are for them?

No! Most people aren't really great at communicating messages that are uncomfortable or personally challenging. They should be saying, "This is what I need, want, and demand from you." And that lack of clarity can be discouraging to the potential naysayer or honest messenger. Unless one is comfortable that the leader really welcomes straight feedback, the odds are he won't get it and people will tell him what they think he wants to hear. If a leader wants it straight, he will have to protect the naysayers and let them know they can speak with impunity.

How do you protect them, or make them feel it's O.K.—or even desirable—to take on that role? How do you empower them?

As the leader, you have to make it clear that you genuinely welcome and are comfortable with dissenting viewpoints. Your actions must reinforce your words. You have to ensure that the challenging person has air time, is included in key meetings, and has your undivided attention in discussions. The fact that you value his inputs must be made clear. The person must really be engaged and his thinking probed. Positive feedback should be provided regardless of whether the naysayer's views carry the day.

Also, outside of meetings the signals you give have to be clear—"The straight story is what I want, and I mean to have it—and it's great the way so-and-so provides it."

What do you do if you're a naysayer and you feel you're really not being given the chance to speak? It's one thing to have someone say, "I want candor, I want the truth," but what do you do if you don't feel you're being listened to or you don't feel confident you will be protected?

I believe it makes sense occasionally to revisit with your boss/leader just what he wants and how aggressively he wants you to contribute. Ask for feedback. There is nothing like openness and frankness. Really helpful guidance can be received if one doesn't dance around the elephant in the room.

It is also important to recognize that there are lots of forums and ways in which strong views can be communicated. An attack mode in a large meeting isn't the only way. A sensitivity and understanding to how to make things happen is more likely to be effective. Transparency is important as well. In the final analysis, if a naysayer decides his views are not welcome, he needs to decide whether he wants to stay around or leave.

If the leader wants people who will challenge him, he has to make them believe they can influence decisions, their voices are heard and valued, and they can have a real impact on outcomes.

It seems that much of the burden is on the subordinate. Is that right?

Of course. Before one accepts a job or an advisory role, one should understand the expectations and the most comfortable style of communicating with the leader. Clarity of expectations and delivering against those expectations is the only basis for a successful, ongoing relationship.

One shouldn't take a job unless he is confident of the ground rules. The subordinate has to remember that his job is to be effective and contribute to the success of his leader. Candor up front is critical if candor in the future is to happen.

Why don't people have these conversations ahead of time?

Walking into the Oval Office is intimidating. Even the corner office of a corporation can tongue-tie many. That's why as a leader, one has to find people who are tough to intimidate, people who will stand up to him, and then make a real effort to help them feel comfortable.

Even the setting is important in putting people as ease. A President may even want to stop by the offices of his advisers or have an occasional lunch in the White House mess. That doesn't happen often, in my experience.

How do you know if they will provide you with critically important viewpoints?

Certainly you find out everything you can before they are hired about their backgrounds and how they performed in the past. There should be lots of evidence on whether they can stand up to people. And once they are on board, you test them and give them lots of opportunities to demonstrate their skills, speak up, and grow. How they respond to challenges inside and outside the organization will help determine if they can or will give the leader what he wants.

Walter Scott is a professor in the Management and Strategy Dept. at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, where he has taught classes in leadership and board governance of for-profit and not-for-profit organizations since 1988. Prior to joining Kellogg, Scott served as a senior partner of Lehman Brothers, associate director for economics and government in the U. S. Office of Management & Budget, executive vice-president of the Pillsbury Company, president and CEO of IDS Financial Services (now Ameriprise), and chairman and CEO of GrandMet USA (now Diageo). He has served on 15 corporate boards of directors and 20 nonprofit boards of directors. For more information about the Kellogg School of Management, including its MBA and its executive education programs, visit

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