1837. That was the year that Hans Christian Andersen first published his fairytale, The Emperor’s New Clothes. Hard to believe it was that long ago.
I’ve heard references to that fairy tale multiple times during the last two weeks, all by different people, relating to different situations. More often than not, those comments were accompanied by another phrase, "speaking truth to power."
Do you remember the tale? The story of the vain and narcissistic emperor who was shirking his leadership duties in favor of self-admiration and expansion of his opulent wardrobe? And his staff and community who were too afraid to confront him, to speak truth to power? And the innocent (some would say ill-mannered) child who blew through all of that and stated the obvious?
If you would like a bit of a reminder, here is a video clip from the story in cartoon form. For the 2 (versus 9) minute version, I recommend that you watch between minutes 5:47 and 7:50.
As I listen to that story again through a present-day, (relatively) adult frame of mind, I am aware of so much more than when I was a child. For example, there were numerous opportunities for people to intervene and disrupt the pattern, to speak truth to power. But they didn’t. Why?
I assume some combination of fear, self-interest, self-doubt, and/or a sense of hopelessness, powerlessness, or despair held them back. The same combination of reasons that I don’t speak up many times when I have the opportunity.
I’d like to share with you an example of a time when I did speak up, and some things I learned from it.
A Client Story ~ Jorge* the bulldozer
*Real person, fictional name
I met Jorge on a ropes course several years ago.
A colleague of mine had invited me to co-facilitate a team-building event with a product development team in the company where he worked as an internal consultant. Jorge was the leader of that team.
Jorge had founded a company on the East coast which had recently been bought by this much larger company in the Pacific NW. You can probably imagine…a smart, scrappy, head strong entrepreneur and his team from New Jersey blending with a pre-existing team in a large, somewhat bureaucratic corporation in Northwest-nice Seattle. Needless to say, there were issues.
My colleague had structured a multiple day experience for the team and had asked me to help him with an experiential part of the event, a ropes course out in the woods in Monroe, WA. He selected me for three reasons—I was certified on the ropes course, I was female (they were all male), and I still demonstrated the directness of my East coast, Philadelphia roots.
The Moment of Truth ~ stand up or shrink back
It was obvious during the first activity of the day that Jorge demonstrated no capacity to step back and allow his team to assess the situation and figure out a solution. He actively orchestrated the problem-solving and the operations with little to no consideration for anyone else’s opinions, skills, or concerns.
After observing that same bulldozing pattern beginning on the second activity, I suggested he might want to step back a bit and allow the team to own some of the process. He complied…for about 45 seconds, and then stepped back in and took over. His single focus was that his team would be "the best team ever to complete the activity." He rigidly defined "the best" in terms of speed and quality of end results. Nothing to do with the process--how they got there or who was sacrificed along the way.
It was clear that I was going to need to intervene more directly if the team was going to have an opportunity to experience a different way of operating.
Several things ran through my mind as I contemplated getting more direct and forceful in setting some additional boundaries—
- Jorge would get angry at me for sure, and maybe at his team as well, and that wouldn’t be pleasant
- It could make things worse…the team, particularly the members from the Seattle area who were new to working with him, might withdraw even further
- If it all blew up, my colleague would also be unhappy with me and I would risk not being asked to work with him or his company again, it could impact my professional reputation
- And did I really know what I was doing anyway? Couldn’t we just debrief what had happened and I could encourage the team to take ownership of stepping up and changing the patterns, allowing me to take a more passive role?
After several minutes of contemplation (more like frantically looking for a way out while reminding myself to breath and sweating profusely), I decided to put a ‘gag rule’ on Jorge. That meant that he was not allowed to say anything during the activities, he could only respond to the requests and directions of his team members. He glared at me but, surprisingly, he complied...
...until he resorted to directing activities with his hands. At which point I told him he had to step way back, away from the team, and put his hands in his pockets.
He stormed away in a fit of temper.
Shared Purpose ~ malama pono
He did return.
And when he did, he apologized.
He was quite open with his team, and with me, about how surprised he was at his own inability to disengage for the overall benefit of the team. He knew it was the right thing to do and just couldn’t seem to manage himself in the moment. He was too attached to the outcome, placing it above everything else. [This, by the way, is about emotional intelligence, or EQ, which you can read about in other issues of Executive Reflections.]
It was a powerful and pivotal moment for all of us who were there. And I believe that our shared purpose was one key to inviting that moment to happen--the goal of enabling the team to work better together so that they could produce high quality products in a timely way…products that ultimately could save lives.
I have a dear friend who is Hawaiian. He told me about the spirit of malama pono that exists in the indigenous population. Malama pono, as he describes it to me, is the consistent embodiment of focusing on the greater good. The focus is on WE, not me; US, not I. He says, as a result, all decisions should benefit the whole, the community. If they don’t, they aren’t good decisions.
I now know that’s what enabled me to overcome my own fears and insecurities on that day. There was a greater purpose at stake, a purpose grounded in the spirit of malama pono. We had all set expectations and made commitments to each other at the beginning of the day. It was clear that my job was to do what I could to enable that purpose to be realized. The awareness finally dawned on me that this very moment was exactly why they hired me.
Who do we choose to be?
There are many things we have choices about. Some of those include how we choose to show up--what values, beliefs, and principles will guide our decisions and actions. That includes conscious choices about when we stand up and speak out for the greater good.
In her book, Who Do We Choose To Be, Meg Wheatley says it is too late to expect malama pono based leadership to come from our global leaders. It is going to have to come from local leaders, from us.
There are three things we can do.
- First, see reality for what it is--not only does the emperor have no clothes, he's not taking care of the kingdom or the people in it, and no one appears to be doing anything about it
- Second, claim leadership--stand up and speak out for what serves the greater good in ways and places that can make a positive impact
- And third, restore sanity--create and maintain places ('islands of sanity') where the quality of relationships and thinking is high, the defined values are truly lived, and people are focused on and supported in making meaningful contribution.
Image Credit: Lexi Ruskell
- QUESTION ONE:
What message or insight stands out to you from The Emperor's New Clothes as you think about the story now?
- QUESTION TWO:
What implications or guidance might there be for you from that message/insight?
- QUESTION THREE:
Where is one place you could create an "island of sanity" in the midst of chaos and turmoil?
"Sane leadership on behalf of the human spirit is the only way forward." Margaret Wheatley