John Ainley: The truth is out there (but your leadership conversations might not find it)

In every executive team it is critical that open, honest conversations are the bedrock of our debates and decisions. In reality however, most teams have superficial conversations related to uncontroversial operational issues that tend to be more about each team member protecting their own departments and teams from scrutiny; protecting their vulnerabilities rather than speaking openly and honestly.

Call it an executive filter if you like, where team members prefer to project confidence and an assurance that everything is under control rather than discuss uncertainty. This unwillingness to speak openly and address disagreements, uncertainties, or what is really going on for each team member, can be a significant barrier to an organisation’s ultimate success.

Speak the truth

My encouragement is for leaders to speak the truth as they see it; to be aware that what they’re seeing and hearing might not be the truth. It’s a theme of deep conversations facing into difficulties, not avoiding, or being worried about being seen to be looking good or on top of everything. But being free and able to have a discussion about what has gone well and what needs paying attention to without the fear of being seen as foolish by other members of the team.

I mentioned in my last post that organisations become shadows of their leaders. If a CEO shows a willingness to be vulnerable and be challenged, as well as challenging, in a way that isn’t disrespectful but that is searching for the truth, then the executive team and the rest of the organisation will follow the CEO’s lead.

Blood, toil, tears and sweat

This doesn’t mean that there are not times when putting on a show of being in complete control at critical times is very important. People will listen and respond to that confidence. If you’ve watched the recent Churchill film – Darkest Hour – there was a great example of a leader needing to project confidence even though behind the scenes he, and his war cabinet, were plagued by self-doubt and division.

Of course, Darkest Hour is the exception. In the day-to-day business of running an organisation, Churchillian rhetoric is not what is needed most of the time. An environment where leaders and their teams feel comfortable to admit weaknesses and challenge each other openly without fear of being labelled as weak, foolish or out of control, will ultimately bear far greater dividends than a culture that allows executives to shape their own, highly veneered narrative.