In a previous article,  we discussed a pernicious dynamic that many campus presidents are victims of as they endeavor to lead their institutions. We identified it as "the seduction of the leader," a term that was first introduced to us by our colleague Rodney Napier. In short, it describes how presidents often do not receive pertinent information and honest feedback about their ideas because followers are reluctant to provide it to them. This is not an ill-intentioned attempt by followers to misinform the president, but there are several enablers that keep this dynamic alive.
Many followers believe the president represents "the institution" with all its power, tradition, history and complexity. They are reluctant to push back on the president's ideas or tell it like it really is because it might be disrespectful to the office of the president and, therefore, discourteous to the institution. At other times people lack the courage and the skill to provide different perspectives or ask the president the tough questions needed to make good decisions for the campus. Still others might be intimidated by the president's intelligence, persona or sheer charisma.
Many senior-level executives might not provide difficult information during the president's cabinet meetings because they don't want to lose their "seat at the table." We have seen several instances when an outspoken member of the team was coached to go easy, or even uninvited to cabinet meetings. When this happens, it sends a powerful and loud signal to everyone about what is appropriate and what is not. Finally, the president's tolerance for contrary ideas may be well-known and their strong reactions to those folks who provide contrary opinions or perspectives tells everyone that they aren't really open to the ideas of others.
Whatever the reason, this reluctance to "speak truth to power" leaves the president isolated and misinformed. Followers just go along to get along, which puts the president — and, ultimately, the institution — at risk.
This seduction does not live just with the president. We have witnessed this dynamic with many C-level leaders and deans. One of the authors experienced it firsthand when he became a chief financial officer for the first time. He had transitioned from an elite institution to a solid but not nationally recognized one. During his early days on the job, he repeatedly referenced how things had been done at his previous institution. Unbeknownst to him, this came across as criticism of the way things were being done at the new institution. This went on for quite some time without the offender realizing how it was being received by his colleagues.
Finally, in frustration — but very tactfully — one brave soul reminded him he no longer worked for that institution and the new institution did not enjoy the level of resources that existed at the previous one. He went on to explain that the unit managers were finding it hard to receive the criticism of how things were being done at the new institution. In response, an apology was offered immediately. The situation was acknowledged and the chief financial officer expressed his gratitude for the feedback. At the next scheduled staff meeting, this individual was singled out for praise and appreciation was expressed for his willingness to stick his neck out and offer the criticism that needed to be shared. This situation created the opportunity to drive home the message that it was okay to share what might be considered as negative feedback. It proved valuable during the remainder of the time he worked at the new institution.
Our leaders must be vigilant in neutralizing the insidious power of this dynamic. The following suggestions and strategies can help senior leaders avoid this seduction. All of them are reflective of our experience with campus leaders. Many of them might be difficult, even challenging to implement or courageous to do — but they’re worth the effort.
Obtain Feedback With a 'Leadership Audit'
One of the most powerful and effective ways senior leaders can avoid seduction is by soliciting anonymous feedback from peers and subordinates about their leadership effectiveness. The human resources department can help organize and coordinate this effort to ensure anonymity. A short survey could go out to 20 to 30 selected individuals that would ask the following questions:
1. What have I done in the last year to improve the overall morale in my department/division?
2. What is one piece of advice you can give me that would further enhance my leadership effectiveness?
3. What are three things I do well as the leader of this department/division?
4. What is one thing I really need to improve upon as a leader?
5. What is one thing I can do to ensure the department/division continues to improve?
The answers to these five questions will provide senior leaders with critical and practical information leaders rarely receive. Once you conduct the anonymous survey, we suggest you review it with a trusted colleague or two to gain insight and perspective about the data collected. Having other minds at the table as you look at your audit results is almost always helpful.
It is important that you communicate back to the people who completed the anonymous survey that you appreciate the time and attention they invested. In broad strokes let people know the essential messages/lessons you received from the survey information. For example,
- I learned that I need to be more visible to people throughout the division.
- People would like to have quarterly town hall meetings to get everyone on the same page, ask questions and continue to build a sense of community.
- The weekly blog I started to use this year seems to be working well.
- Many people see me as hardworking, fair, trustworthy and decisive.
- I need to be a better listener.
When we have worked with senior leaders willing to undertake a process like this, several things have been accomplished. Their peers and subordinates respected the courage it takes to conduct a leadership audit. It communicated to followers that the leader is open to the ideas and feedback of others. It let followers know that their opinions and advice are valued by the leader.
Obviously the key to the leadership audit is to do something meaningful and visible with the information. You cannot respond to everyone's advice but you can respond to the handful of key themes that emerge in a process like this. If people believe their feedback truly informs your thinking and actions, they will continue to provide it and you will be a well-informed leader.
Seek Input from Various Sources
Involve others in your sense making and decision making.
Complexity and ambiguity are here to stay and senior leaders will need all the help they can get to solve the challenges and problems that await us. The trap many senior leaders fall into is the belief that they alone are supposed to make the difficult decisions and tough choices. They think that's what they get paid to do and often isolate themselves from others when making final decisions.
Many problems exist with this situation. Senior leaders begin to edit or filter the information they receive in order to manage the complexity and avoid information overload. They frequently try to oversimplify the challenge or treat it as if it’s the same as a problem they previously faced. They seek to narrow their choices and options and focus on either/or solutions. The anxiety that often accompanies a complex decision is uncomfortable and they jump to solutions to get beyond the anxiety. Even when they seek the ideas of others, they often subconsciously choose individuals who think just like they do. This creates a "confirming evidence" decision trap and reinforces the current thinking.
When making an important decision, senior leaders must be proactive in soliciting the ideas and feedback of others. For many, this feels counterintuitive but is the best path forward. In cabinet discussions or divisional/departmental meetings, the leader must actively invite the ideas and perspectives of others in order to avoid being seduced by their own ideas.
For example: "This is my best current thinking. What am I missing here?" The key is that the leader authentically invites feedback rather than just asking the perfunctory, "Do you have any questions?" It is important that you declare your expectation for honest feedback about your proposed ideas.
Another way to solicit feedback is to say, "This is what I think about the situation and how I got to this place. Now please help me refine my thinking." Or ask, "What are some of your reactions to my current thinking?" "What advice or perspective can you provide to help shape my thinking?" The key is to actively invite the feedback from others because it won't happen by chance.
Along the same lines, the leader should share proposed solution sets before pursuing them. It’s not enough just to share the current thinking and solicit feedback. As the leader is moving toward resolution, it would be good to test the thinking with others.
Of course, this kind of active solicitation will not work in a low-trust environment, but it can help build a sense of trust and openness over time if the senior leader persists with this approach and, most importantly, actually listens to people.
Remember that leaders determine who gets listened to.
Senior leaders must be disciplined in their efforts to listen to multiple perspectives from multiple layers within the institution. They can only do this if they are visible to others and available to them. Staying trapped in your office doesn't help you find the voices that need to be heard. Venture out across the campus and make sure people see you. This creates the opportunity for connection and conversation.
Many of the effective senior leaders we have worked with regularly walk, not ride, across their campuses. Others frequently have lunch in the cafeteria or student union building. If people know you eat lunch in the cafeteria every Friday, or visit the faculty dining hall or student union on a regular basis, they will start trying to connect with you. A key is to intentionally connect with all constituencies. Join a group of students or faculty, or even junior or lower-level staff. When people get used to your presence, they will often strike up a conversation. People rarely approach strangers, so don't be one. Become familiar to campus stakeholders and you will have access to people's concerns, questions and aspirations.
Engage young people in conversation on a regular basis.
As consultants who do strategic planning on campuses, we have found young people (e.g., staff under 30 and students) are closer to the future than most senior leaders. Their future orientation is often dramatically different from that of senior leaders and can help leaders have a more holistic viewpoint as they make decisions for the future of their institutions.
Senior leaders' many years of experience can be a mixed blessing in some ways. The experience comes in handy when dealing with routine problems, but with emerging challenges with little or no history, the layers of experience can get in the way of seeing new opportunities and fresh insights.
Make it a point to talk periodically with a wide variety of students, not just the student government folks. Use this as an opportunity to find out what’s on their minds. Seeking a multiplicity of young perspectives can be informative and educational and keep senior leaders at the cutting edge of thinking, not trapped somewhere in the middle.
Seek out divergent thinkers — especially those with a negative edge.
The campus critics are often ignored because of their predictable negativity and sometimes prickly personalities. They often have the gift of only looking at what's not working. It isn't that the glass is half empty or half full. They don't even have a glass!
The psychological bind leaders experience with these people is that they are often right and might be the only people willing to speak truth to power. Their information can be helpful, even strategic, but it often comes with a bite as they deliver it. Seek them out anyway. It usually is worth the pain and aggravation.
Whenever we conduct a strategic planning process on a campus, we actively seek out the curmudgeons because they tell it like it is. It is not a pleasant conversation, but it is always an informative one. They know the politics, the history and the conflicts — all important to know before you start a planning process.
One note of caution in this regard. Try to avoid those with a destructive bent. Being a critic is one thing, but seeking to inflict damage or destroy the organization is another. In seeking out the views of the curmudgeons, ensure that the individuals you solicit actually care about the institution.
Avoid stifling conversation that might produce contradictory views.
It usually is a good idea for senior leaders to speak last during discussions on complex issues. This allows them to avoid overly influencing the conversation with their weighted opinions and ideas. You want to avoid a "false agreement" in which everyone hears your views and just goes along for the ride. Going last also enables you to see how your direct reports actually think and contribute to the discussion. This informal assessment can be telling. After everyone has had their say, you’ll be better informed before sharing what you think.
Accept Bad News With the "Godfather" Rule
In the classic movie "The Godfather," Don Corleone, the mafia leader, strongly communicates to his inner circle of advisers the importance of delivering bad news quickly. He explains that if he can hear the bad news asap, he will have more options on how to deal with the situation. He realizes bad news doesn't get better with age, and getting ahead of a problem is essential to his success.
It is important for senior leaders to encourage those around them to share difficult information and emerging problems quickly. This creates a culture of openness, especially if the messenger is treated respectfully in the process. Everyone will be carefully watching the senior leader's reactions to bad news. Therefore, they need to be conscious of the impact of their reactions. If they react negatively, the signal is sent that bad news isn't wanted and the seduction continues. Try to reward those individuals who deliver difficult information. A very different signal is then sent about being forthright and courageous.
Seduction of the leader exists on most campuses and has little to do with people's honesty and integrity. We believe most people want to be able to have open discussions and debate, push back on their leader's ideas, provide contrary and supporting information and help influence decision making. There are underlying forces that support this seduction dynamic. Senior leaders must be diligent in recognizing this dilemma and conscientious about implementing practices and protocols to neutralize its insidious power.
Watch Out for Gatekeepers and Consiglieres
Years ago, one of the authors had a wonderful executive secretary who did the job of at least two people. In his first week on his new job he was struck by the fact that no one had come to meet with him. Finding this puzzling, he mentioned it to the secretary only to have her tell him that, "It is my job to make sure that people don't bother you, so you can do your work."
Although her protection was well-intentioned, it had created a moat few could traverse. He had to assure her that she needed to let people talk with him so that he could understand their concerns and that this was a big part of his job. It took a while for her to get used to the idea, because she had been the gatekeeper for her former boss for many years.
There might be mini-moats in your office that can prevent people from reaching you.
Presidents and senior leaders are often shielded from critical information, or receive watered-down versions of sensitive information by well-meaning gatekeepers who filter information as it moves up the chain. These could be a chief of staff, a powerful secretary or an assistant. Most of the time this is not ill-intentioned, but it can leave the leader uninformed, isolated and seduced.
Several factors encourage this editing process. There are times when these individuals realize that the leader is very busy and don't want to burden them with too much information. They distill complex information into "chewable chunks," opting to tell the headline and not the story. Unfortunately, much is lost in the translation, because the information can be complex and nuanced, with multiple interpretations.
Other times, they don't want to upset the senior leader and often soften the information or provide a watered-down version of it. They can predict the leader’s response to negative information and want to avoid any unpleasant reactions or fallout. They lighten the potential impact by making the message easier to hear. Sometimes they employ phrases like "faculty always complain. They think that's their job," or "I can assure you that other campuses have more serious problems than this." Although there may be a kernel of truth in the statement, it doesn’t justify not addressing a problem.
Recently, we had a meeting with a chief of staff of a large university. He wanted our advice about communicating the results of a recent campus climate survey. The results were not good. He did not want to share this with the president and provost because he knew it would create a firestorm. He wanted to hold onto the information for about six months until things had cooled down a little. At that point he believed it would be best to have HR communicate the results of the survey. He wanted our advice.
This is an individual we have known and respected for over a decade. He loves his institution and his job, and wants what is best for the university he serves. We realize that it is easy for consultants to give advice because we don't have to live with the consequences. That being said, we shared the following observations.
"There are many people on campus who took this climate survey. They know what the climate on campus is like because they work and live here every day. Now they know that you know it too." He immediately saw the common sense of what we said. We then strategized on how to share the results with the senior leadership team right away. At the same time, we helped him develop a communication plan for the campus, along with some solutions to deal directly with many of the tough issues that surfaced in the survey.
The role of a consigliere is different and more complex than that of a gatekeeper and it exists on many campuses. These individuals have real power because of their trusted role with the president or senior leader. The leader confides in them, bounces ideas off them, shares secrets, politics and perspectives. They are on the inside and want to stay there.
Although many of these individuals perform a valuable function for the president and the institution, some utilize the power of their position in inappropriate ways. Some choose to shield the leader from uncomfortable information or translate it into a more palatable form in the guise of protecting the individual. They can block individuals who speak the truth by canceling appointments or letting the leader know that it is a waste of time to talk with particular individuals or stakeholder groups. They also can play favorites, thereby ensuring that their agenda is the one that is pursued rather than what might be best for the institution.
The consigliere can take many forms. Sometimes it's the chief of staff or the president’s executive assistant. In some organizations, the person carries the title chief operating officer. In other cases, the consigliere is the leader’s spouse. Obviously this is an especially difficult one to navigate through and around.
When a leader selects a consigliere, that person must have a high degree of credibility and integrity. The leader must make it clear to the consigliere that he or she serves the institution first. One manifestation of that is that information gets filtered for reasons of effectiveness or efficiency and not because of a hidden agenda. As with the gatekeeper, the leader must periodically check with others to ensure that the appropriate messages are being conveyed.
Followers must be committed to sharing information with their leaders, taking some intelligent risks and telling it like it is. They can only do this if the leader establishes appropriate support relationships that allow information to flow. If they don’t do this, the leader will be wounded without realizing it.
Recognizing Seduction When It’s Happening
The first sign that you may be being seduced is that you don’t have access to contrary opinions or feedback about your ideas. If everyone is supporting your ideas and encouraging you to act on all of them something is wrong. Nobody has a 100 percent success rate. If you’re not occasionally hearing about the fatal flaw in a planned approach there is a problem.
The same is true if people treat you as if you’re a brilliant thinker all of the time. We understand that you’re good at what you do and people respect your intelligence. You probably wouldn’t be at the level you’re at if you didn’t have strong intellectual capabilities. But everyone has an occasional brain cramp. If every thought you share generates kudos in return, it’s probably time to start questioning the value of the feedback you’re receiving. It might even be necessary to float a trial balloon of something that you know is deeply flawed just to test the situation. If you get positive feedback to what you know is a really bad idea, you need to pursue the suggestions in this article.
Another sign of potential problems is when people are offered the opportunity to provide input and they respond with softball questions. For example: “Please clarify what you mean by X” when X is very obviously a warning sign. A more appropriate question would challenge your thinking. For instance, ”Have you thought through the long-term impact of this proposal? I just don't agree with your conclusion. Please share with us how you reached it.”
If you’re spending a lot of time alone and people are not seeking you out for advice or wise counsel there is a chance that you’re suffering from seduction. General Colin Powell tells us, “If your people aren't coming to you with their problems, they don't think you care about them or can help them.” Either of these is a bad situation. Leadership is about solving problems. If you aren't getting any, you're in trouble.
Leaders can be seduced into thinking that everything is fine when, in fact, there are serious problems that are not being addressed. Proactively follow the steps we’ve identified and you’ll avoid operating in the dark. Moreover, the quality of your leadership efforts will be enhanced significantly.
Patrick Sanaghan is president of the Sanaghan Group, a consulting firm that specializes in strategic planning and leadership development. Larry Goldstein is president of Campus Strategies, LLC, a higher education management consulting firm