One of the toughest things for a leader to do is encourage others to speak openly about their ideas, freely challenging the leader’s point of view. After all, we all come to the party with a certain pride of authorship, and while we say we check our egos at the door, this is rarely completely true. Yet, the failure of a leader to accept challenge is the biggest obstacle to success.
As an example, imagine a CEO who recognizes that expanding the company’s product line to Asia is a huge opportunity for much needed growth. The leader calls her senior team together and presents her idea together with a bold timetable: 25 percent of new revenue will come from Asia within two years. Seven of the eight executives around the table immediately endorse the leader’s courageous concept, but the Chief Strategy Officer is silent, neither supporting nor opposing the initiative. From research, he knows that seven of ten peer companies that have expanded their businesses to Asia have significantly eroded their profitability by moving too quickly, making mistakes that could have been avoided. Yet. he remains silent, feeling that it would be a career risk to challenge his CEO.
Let’s look at this from the perspective of the CEO. She is being bold and asking for her team’s support. If she is challenged, it will feel bad to her. She will wonder if she is an effective leader if her full team does not quickly support her effort to be a great leader who drives big change. These are very natural feelings. And that’s why it’s so hard to be an effective leader. It requires completely re-framing your emotional context, moving from sensitivity to being challenged to embracing challenge as the path to success. It means thinking completely differently, recognizing that if the room is full of yes-men then something is wrong. It requires understanding that bold ideas need to be refined through challenge and investigation so they can work properly. Ultimately, it means feeling good about resistance.
From the perspective of the leader’s colleagues, it means understanding the difference between respect and capitulation. In this example, the leader deserves respect for bringing a bold concept to the table. But the discussion that ensues needs to focus on how to achieve the idea in an effective way. It’s great that the leader threw out a two-year challenge. Yet, if it’s going to take three or four years to be successful in the new initiative, then that point of view needs to be expressed.
A recent HBR blog suggests that leaders keep a close confident in the role of challenger to make sure that bad decisions are not hastily made. This is not a bad concept. It is much better though for the leader to embrace challenge from diverse sources inasmuch as no single individual will be able to raise all of the key issues. This brings us to an important related point: by embracing challenge from a broad group, the leader will be embracing diversity rather than stifling it. Great leaders embrace dissent and diversity and are recognized and respected for it.