11 Jun 2020 19:46 IST

Have the courage to call out those in power on injustice

Leaders must create an atmosphere where people can disagree, and dissent isn’t seen as disloyalty

At the end of May, the annual National People’s Congress in Beijing passed into law a legislation that would effectively end Hong Kong’s special kid-glove treatment. There were 2,878 votes for, one against and six abstentions. When I read that, I paused to think about the one person who voted against. We may not know her or his motivations, but I’d like to think it was a vote of conscience. A vote that said, "I’m prepared to call our great leader out, I’m prepared to call all of you out, on an unjust and draconian law." It reminded me of that famous Hans Christian Andersen tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes.

Two weavers promise the vain Emperor clothes so beautiful and woven from such exotic yarn that it would be a garment the like of which the world had never seen. Turns out the two weavers are charlatans who make use of the Emperor’s great pride to actually weave him nothing. The Emperor puts on his ‘new clothes’ and everyone around him, fearful of breaking the news that he is stark naked, admires his new clothes. While he parades through his city and everyone oohs and aahs, it takes a little boy to finally shout out the truth — "The Emperor has no clothes".

This isn’t just a tale — it is played out with political leaders, with celebrities, with business leaders. Whenever there is a skew in the power equation, there is a temptation for the majority to stay silent, there is a hesitancy to say, ‘the emperor has no clothes’. What are the dangers of this silence?

The lemming effect

We often remain mute spectators to abuse of power, selfish decisions or unfair treatment, because we are afraid to stick our necks out. We fear losing favour. We fear the adverse consequences that come with speaking up. We fear that we will seem ignorant and out of touch. When the whole crowd feels that way, for fear of displeasing their leader, it leads to collective disaster. The lemming effect refers to this herd behaviour. Hitler thrived for a few years on this effect, as thinking men and women, afraid to speak up, collectively embraced a malicious path.

It also leads to mediocrity. When there is a lack of challenge, the leader starts to take the crowd of followers for granted. The bar is lowered because the applause still rings in his ears. Take, for instance, musician John Cage’s 1952 three-movement composition 4’33". The piece is entirely silent. The pianist walks up to the piano and sits for 4 minutes and 33 seconds playing nothing and, at the end, the whole audience applauds! Of course, some critics could say it’s very deep and profound and experimental in that composer was getting us to listen to all the ambient sounds around us. Me? I’ll just say ‘the emperor has no clothes. I’d prefer some real music’.

The silence of the team leads to poor decisions and bad outcomes. In some ways I believe Jeffrey Immelt’s failure at GE was because his team didn’t say often enough “the emperor has no clothes” whether it was M&A decisions which proved disastrous or his unwillingness to see reality. As the headline of the CNBC article on him went: Jeff Immelt’s refusal to give or take bad news defined his leadership at GE (CNBC, Michael Sheetz Feb 21, 2018)

Conviction vs convenience

As I’ve mentioned before, our principles are not our principles, until we pay the price for them. If we only follow our principles when they don’t cost us, then they are based on convenience not conviction. Donald Trump would never have lasted this long if there were enough number of people who called out “the emperor has no clothes”. Instead, many who know he is wrong have stayed silent or, worse, defended him.

The last few weeks have seen some speak out, especially current and former military leaders who have called out the President’s poor leadership. Some from his own Republican party have finally spoken out. We saw the story play out in the business world, with business leaders Jack Dorsey at Twitter and Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook taking very different stands with respect to Trump’s hate rhetoric. Dorsey took a stand against Trump’s language and positions, while Zuckerberg chose to turn a blind eye, claiming his platform promoted freedom of expression. What was edifying to see was how some Facebook employees resigned to protest their company’s stance — they were willing to put their jobs on the line for their convictions. When people stay silent, they display poor leadership and end up costing the organisation its soul.

It becomes infectious

We should also guard against becoming the Emperor. When we see leaders behaving in a narcissistic way and not only tolerate but accept it, we gradually catch the same virus. We soon want others fawning over us, flattering us, agreeing with our every decision. We can avoid this by ensuring we do not surround ourselves with ‘yes men or women’, that we create an atmosphere where there is freedom to disagree, where dissent is not seen as disloyalty.

Leaders need a paradoxical mix of unshakeable confidence and abiding humility. The first is needed because it is insecurity that spawns the need for the constant affirmation and flattery that ‘yes men’ provide. The second is needed for the willingness to listen to another point of view that may be better than your own, the willingness to accept that you may be wrong. It is the rare leader who brings this combination.

Saurabh Mukherjea in his book, The Unusual Billionaires narrates the HDFC Bank story. Deepak Parekh had wooed Aditya Puri from Citibank Malaysia. There was one point of disagreement. Parekh was wary of lending the parent HDFC institution’s name to the bank because he was not yet sure how the fledgling bank would do and did not want the risk of the reputed HDFC name being tarnished. But Puri insisted that the bank should carry the HDFC name, and Parekh listened. Parekh’s willingness to be open, his humility in accepting a different view paved the way for the bank to eventually become a bigger, more valued brand than the parent organisation.

Companies, communities and countries all need to guard against putting the wrong kind of emperors in positions of leadership. Their megalomania and insecurities will eventually pull their followers and organisations down. They are not the real leaders. It is the ‘little boy’ who is willing to shout out “the emperor has no clothes” who is the real leader.

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