Advisers advise. Leaders lead. It is a leader’s responsibility to listen but not always to act on what she hears. That’s the difference between advising and leading.
President Obama’s efforts to impose his views on the conduct of the war in Afghanistan bring to mind the example of an earlier president, Abraham Lincoln. During the first three years of the Civil War, Lincoln was served by military leaders who were either less than competent or, in the case of George McClellan, down right contemptuous of him. It was not until running through many generals that Lincoln landed on Ulysses S. Grant who led the Union forces to final victory. The lesson is that sometimes you must trust your instincts and find those who agree with your strategy.
Trusting your instincts served Lyndon Johnson well in his quest to implement his Great Society social welfare programs but ill served him in Vietnam. In the former, Johnson knew poverty and knew how he could eradicate it with government assistance. With Vietnam he was out of depth and trusted his advisers as well as his generals to give him good information. Tragically Johnson entwined his own ego with the war, as all presidents are wont to do, and it ended up making the war worse and costing the lives of tens of thousands of our soldiers.
The advice then for leaders is to trust your instincts but know what you can accomplish as well as what you cannot do. Here are three things leaders need from their chief aides or advisers.
Straight talk. Leaders at any level, but especially those at the head of large organizations, suffer by surrounding themselves with people who are incapable of giving honest assessments of what is happening in the organization. They continually sandbag their leader with happy talk. In truth, this is the leader’s fault. He or she must meet and mingle with people to find out the straight dope. As Colin Powell teaches, if your soldiers are not coming to you with bad news, you have a problem.
Push back. Truth is essential, but so too is honest dissent. Every leader must be told no from time to time. To do otherwise is to create the Elvis Syndrome-whatever the leader wants, the leader gets. This was not healthy for the singer and nor is it good for a leader. We owe our bosses our best advice even if it contradicts their worldviews.
Support. Disagreement is healthy, but we owe those in charge and for whom we work our loyalty, even when they do not agree with us. This means putting aside your dissent and supporting the leader in his effort to guide the organization. By withholding your support after you have had your say, you only undermine the leader’s ability to lead. If that occurs, it is time for you to leave.
There is a wonderful scene in the movie 13 Days, in which Chief Aide Kenny O’Donnell tells President John Kennedy that he didn’t know if Kennedy was making the right decision about blockading Cuba to prevent Soviet ships from resupplying Cuba with additional nuclear missiles and supplies. But O’Donnell does tell the president that he trusts his decision-making.
There is wisdom in those words. We support leaders because they have earned our trust. They are far from perfect, but we believe they, not their advisers, will do the best they can when it matters most.
First published in Washington Post 9.28