There is an old fable from the mid-1800’s some of us learned as children-it always intrigued me. The fable is called The Emperor’s New Clothes and the moral of the story is centered around the acceptance of harsh honesty.
The story is about an emperor who loved nothing more than fine clothes. Knowing this, a couple of swindlers come to town and offered to make him the finest suit of all time, free of charge, but then only those who are worthy of their posts in his court – and those who are intelligent enough – will be able to see them.
As the clothes are being made, the emperor sends in several trustworthy and highly intelligent people to examine them. Though none of them could see any fabric or patterns, because there was nothing to see, none of them would admit they had seen nothing – none of them wanted to be deemed unworthy or unintelligent.
When the clothing is finished, the emperor’s trustworthy and highly intelligent people pretend to dress him in his fine new suit for his processional throughout the town. Also, knowing the precedence that had been set regarding those who are able to see the clothes, everyone in town commented on how beautiful the emperor’s new clothes were. It wasn’t until a child in the crowd shouted out that the emperor was naked that others joined in his obvious observance. The emperor, knowing that the crowd was right in their chants, continued with the processional and pretended to be wearing fine clothes.
For the most part – as I have grown to take on various leadership roles throughout my career – I’ve been surrounded by genuine, forthcoming people who felt comfortable enough to tell me when I wasn’t actually wearing the “suit.” It may not have always been what I wanted to hear, but it was what I needed to hear. That acceptance of harsh honesty has saved me from dozens of scenarios where I may have been at risk of falling victim to my own disbelief.
When we consent to the positions of leadership that are bestowed upon us, it is often a struggle within ourselves – and with others – to know that we do not have all of the answers. After all, we have been put in these positions due to our intellect and trustworthiness – the same reasons the emperor had appointed people to his court.
Our internal struggle is mostly with that of our ego, because as leaders, everyone expects us to lead – whether verbally or by example – motivate our teammates, command their attention, and control their focus. We, as leaders, must dig deep and challenge our teammates to think differently, act differently and above all else, perform differently.
In the moments when we’re acknowledged for our accomplishments, we are praised for those acts of leadership. So as we shoulder these responsibilities and expectations as leaders, we must also shoulder and control the burden of our inflated ego.
Thinking back to the story of the emperor, had the people surrounding him not been afraid of the results of their honesty, he may have avoided such public embarrassment. Those surrounding him would have faired better had they given him the harsh honesty up front. Regardless of setting – whether a boardroom or a town processional – we all must be open to the truth, open to the reality of being told we’re “naked.”
Sometimes, that harsh honesty will come at the expense of sensitivity, political correctness, relationships, or the egos of our leaders, but are those expenses more costly than other tradeoffs like progress and high performance? I think you’ll find the answer to be, in fact, no.
Take Action: Don’t be that Emperor… be open to honesty today by creating an atmosphere of truth telling.