The most dangerous man or woman in the room comes with a smile

by Lief Anya Schneider

May 2017

This week the leader of the free world stepped right in it again - appearing to demonstrate a belief that Andrew Jackson’s ghost may have had some strong opinions on how to avert the American Civil War. Or some-such. 

And we are seeing the bit-part return, to the joy of a braying, bloodthirsty crowd, of Fred Goodwin, who is to be a defendant in a blockbuster £700m High Court lawsuit brought by 27,000 retail investors and institutions. 

What do the two chaps have in common? A fair amount. Thing one, I daresay, is a penchant for sycophants, and a willingness to believe their honeyed lies. Because the question that lies over both of them, and hundreds of others of their ilk (as in, the media guns for them, and they gain abject rejection from a big chunk of stakeholders) is “Didn’t they ever run anything by other people?” Answer: yes they did. The bigger question is: "who did they carry out this exercise with?". 

Machiavelli observed that there “is no other way of guarding oneself from flatterers except by letting men understand that you will not be offended if they tell you the truth.” Well, yes, Mr M. That’s true. But first you have to understand that there’s a need for such a thing. Robbie Burns hinted at human nature’s abhorrence for truthful critique when he said: “O wad some Power the giftie gie us. To see oursels as ithers see us!”

Well, who really wants that? I’d say we want it sometimes, and at others, not at all. Especially if how others are currently seeing us is not very nice. But the truth is, really great leaders, the ones that leave solid legacies behind, do take advice and do allow objective input – however unpleasant that exercise may be. And leaders who think they’re just great all the time (we shall call them Fred, Don, Dick and Phil – hope you can work the last two out), but ultimately miss the mark, are the ones who start off good then drink their own kool aid. And get other people to feed it back to them.

Trump’s factual errors of historical reference and so on are easily avoidable if he would use a comms advisor properly. One he allowed to give him feedback and brief him properly and who had the proverbial balls to stand up to him occasionally. External comms advisors are in the perfect position to point things out that others can’t. It is far better to rehearse with a discreet comms advisor, make a d**k of yourself, be told that you’re coming across a bit d**kish and then put things right before you step onto the global stage, than to play it all out the other way round. Wise leaders know this.

Those prone to receiving flattery (and have a bunch of yes-men as external alter-egos to their own egos) have largely themselves to blame. Because not all yes-men are such because they are natural flatterers. In fact, most are completely decent, intelligent people who simply would rather feed their families than lock horns and lose to a huge ego. Similarly, not all leaders are to blame for listening to yessers. They may not be aware that their “advisor” is not entirely telling the truth. Some flatterers are very good at it. They’ve been practicing a while – ever since they told the school bully he was spot-free and all the girls loved him. (It was that or be thrown out of the gang. Forever.)

Even Henry VIII had someone who was allowed to criticise him without fear of the usual scaffold. Will Somers, his trusty and highly intelligent Court Jester. If you don’t have a Will Somers, you’re ultimately doomed.

Originally published in the SPIT 2 May 2017.


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