By Warren Bennis
It is probably inevitable that a society as star-struck as ours should focus on leaders in analyzing why organizations succeed or fail. As a long-time student and teacher of management, I, too, have tended to look to the men and women at the top for clues on how organizations achieve and maintain institutional health. But the longer I study effective leaders, the more I am convinced of the under-appreciated importance of effective followers.
What makes a good follower? The most important characteristic may be a willingness to tell the truth. In a world of growing complexity, leaders are increasingly dependent on their subordinates for good information, whether the leaders want to hear it or not. Followers who tell the truth, and leaders who listen to it, are an unbeatable combination.
Movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn seems to have had a gut-level awareness of the importance of what I call "effective backtalk" from subordinates. After a string of box-office flops, Mr. Goldwyn called his staff together and told them: "I want you to tell me exactly what's wrong with me and MGM, even if it means losing your job."
Although Mr. Goldwyn wasn't ready to give up the ego-massaging presence of "yes men", in his own gloriously garbled way he acknowledged the company's greater need for a staff that speaks the truth.
Like portfolios, organizations benefit from diversity. Effective leaders resist the urge to people their staffs only with others who look or sound or think just like themselves, what I call doppelganger, or ghostly-double, effect. They look for good people from many molds, and then they encourage them to speak out, even to disagree. Aware of the pitfalls of institutional unanimity, some leaders wisely build dissent into the decision-making process.
Organizations that encourage thoughtful dissent gain much more than a heightened air of collegiality. The make better decisions. Like good leaders, good followers understand the importance of speaking out. More important, the do it. Over thirty years ago, when Nikita Khruschev came to America, he met with reporters at the Washington Press Club. The first written question he received was: "Today you talked about the hideous rule of your predecessor, Stalin. You were one of his closest aides and colleagues during those years. What were you doing all that time?" Khruschev's face grew red. "Who asked that?" he roared. No one answered. "Who asked that?" he insisted. Again, silence. "That's what I was doing," Mr. Khruschev said.
Even in democracies, where the only gulag is the threat of a pink slip, it is hard to disagree with the person in charge. Several years ago TV's John Chancellor asked former Presidential aides how they behaved on those occasions when the most powerful person in the world came up with a damned fool idea. Several of the aides admitted doing nothing. Ted Sorenson revealed that John F. Kennedy could usually be brought to his senses by being told, "That sounds like the kind of idea Nixon would have."
Quietism, as a more pious age called the sin of silence, often costs organizations - and their leaders - dearly. Former President Ronald Reagan suffered far more at the hands of so-called friends who refused to tell him unattractive truths than from his ostensible enemies.
Nancy Reagan, in her memoir, My Turn, recalls chiding then Vice-President George Bush when he approached her, not the President, with grave reservations about White House chief of staff Donald Regan.
"That's exactly your role," she snapped.
Nancy Reagan was right. It is the good follower's obligation to share his or her best counsel with the person in charge. And silence - not dissent - is the one answer that leaders should refuse to accept.
Effective leaders reward dissent, as well as encourage it. They understand that whatever momentary discomfort they experience as a result of being told from time to time that they are wrong is more than offset by the fact that reflective backtalk increases a leader's ability to make good decisions.
Executive compensation should go far toward salving the pricked ego of the leader whose followers speak their minds. But what's in it for the follower? The good follower may indeed have to put his or her job on the line in the course of speaking up. But consider the price he or she pays for silence. What job is worth the enormous psychic cost of following a leader who values loyalty in the narrowest sense?
Perhaps the ultimate irony is that the follower willing to speak out shows precisely the kind of initiative that leadership is made of.
Warren Bennis is Distinguished Professor of Business Administration at the University of Southern California and the author of more than a dozen books on the character and challenge of contemporary leadership. This essay, which originally appeared in the New York Times, is excerpted from his book, An Invented Life: Reflections on Leadership and Change, (1993), Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., reprinted with permission.
This article is reprinted from the Summer 1994 issue of USC Business.
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