Yes-Men Leadership: Beware of the Danger of Creating a Toxic Culture.

IN AMERICAN HISTORY, THERE HAS NEVER been a President who faced the greatest and worst crisis, and no President who has ever achieved so much in his Presidential days than Abraham Lincoln.

It was the year 1860, the race for the top job was going on and of the 4 candidates who were seeking republican nominations for Presidential candidates, Abraham Lincoln was one of them.

He was the weakest candidate of all and was literary the underdog. So, nobody gave him a chance. But he stunned the entire country by not only defeating those three inner rivals but went on to become the sixteenth President of America.

If this was not a surprise, a bigger surprise was what he did after being elected and becoming the President. He assembled and created a very unique and unusual cabinet, wherein he appointed those three rivals whom he had defeated to various key positions in his administration, to help him run the country.

All, the three William Seward, Edward Bates, and Salmon Chase had more political experience than Lincoln, they were far more professionally successful than Lincoln, and they were more educated than Lincoln. So everybody thought that it was crazy on his part to appoint his rivals in key positions.

He appointed— Seward as secretary of state, Chase as secretary of the treasury, and Bates as attorney general. Not only this he went far enough appointing his harshest critic: Mr. Edwin Stanton to the most important post during the civil war: the secretary of war. This story is very interesting and needs to be known.

Abraham Lincoln has been practicing law for almost two decades before he was hired by Stanton to represent him on a common trail of McCormick Reaper Co in 1855. The reason for his hiring was not his experience as a lawyer, but because he was inexpensive in his fees.

When Lincoln arrived for the trial, Mr. Stanton was unimpressed by his physical appearance and seeing his messed-up hair and baggy clothes, he went to the extent of calling him a “long-armed ape” a Gorilla. Mr. Stanton wanted to drop him from the case, but seeing his preparation for the case was allowed to be present in the courtroom. He was brutally ignored and he was humiliated.

But, just six years later in 1861, after being elected president of the United States, Lincoln picked Stanton to head the most important department during the Civil War: the war department. Stanton was popularly known as a “bull-head,” that is to say he was egoistic, highly opinionated, strong-willed, and implacable. All that meant Stanton was not particularly likable. But Abraham Lincoln ignored all and chose Stanton as secretary of war. Lincoln was not concerned with his liking or disliking but was concerned with what his country wants.

He knew that Stanton brings with him his brilliant administration skills, his tenacity, his honesty, his single-minded intensity- the qualities desperately needed to galvanize the War Department. And as they both worked together, the two began to like and trust each other, leading to a close personal friendship.

Such was their closeness that when Lincoln was on deathbed after being shot, Stanton accompanied him at his bedside.

After Lincoln took his last breath, Stanton famously remarked, “Now, he belongs to the ages.”

“We needed the strongest men,” said Lincoln, “These were the very strongest men. I had no right to deprive the country of their services.” This was Lincoln’s reply to people who asked why he had chosen rivals and opponents for his cabinet.

Just think and reflect, a great example of visionary and servant leadership.

He knew that to come out of the crisis his country is in, he needed the most brilliant and best minds, and he just did that by selecting his rivals. He was a staunch believer of the fact that the collaborative wisdom of all is far better and greater than his own individual intelligence. It is easy to understand why Abraham Lincoln is the most loved and respected president of America.

I know it’s difficult to believe it today based on what kind of political leaders and climate we see in our respective countries. This is the very reason why we are losing faith in our political leadership.

Only a leader who is strong in character, secure in his skin and who is supremely confident can do such a thing. He did not take the easy and least resistant path of surrounding himself with the so-called like-minded people, rather he chose the toughest path of not surrounding himself with yes-men. Lincoln said no to “Yes-men” leadership.

A great lesson in leadership. Say no to “yes-men” leadership.

Let me share a powerful statement.

“Good leaders surround themselves with good people, but great leaders surround themselves with better, brighter, and smarter people than they are.”

This is also a common challenge and an age-old issue which corporate world suffers from, wherein leaders knowingly or unknowingly, intentionally or unintentionally, consciously or subconsciously end up surrounding themselves with people who say what they want to hear, show them what they want to see and act how they want them to. Words like “I agree,” “you are right,” “I go with you,”  are very soothing musical words every leader wants to hear. But peep into history and you’ll see that this is a trap, a leadership red flag.

Now, the question is why Abraham Lincoln chooses a team of rivals, rather than doing the default that normally leaders do which is selecting and appointing people who are like-minded and creating a web of yes people around them.

History abounds with examples of how dangerous and devastating it can be for a leader to surround himself with yes man or the so-called like-minded people. James Buchanan, Lincoln’s predecessor is a prime example, He deliberately surrounded himself with people in his cabinet who said what he wanted to hear, who thought the way he did. He is considered one of the worst American Presidents.

There is a beautiful shloka in Sanskrit which says:

Sulabhah purusha rajan, satatam priya vadinah I

Apriyasya tu pathyasya, vakta shrota cha durlabhah II

It says, “O,king you’ll be surrounded by subjects who will say good, pleasant, and sweet things about you. They will agree with you on everything and blindly follow you because you have the power, position, and authority. But it is very rare that you’ll find people who can speak the bitter truth in front of you”

This beautiful shloka is originally mentioned in Valmiki Ramayan- Aranyakanda where Maricha warns Ravana against the abduction of Sita. Later it finds mentioning in Yuddhakanda, where Vibhishana gathers courage and through this shloka tries to put some sense in Ravana.

Later on, the same shloka appears in Mahabharata, when the very wise Vidura uses it to guide the blind emperor Dhritarashtra.

Now, do I need to say what happened to Ravana and Kauravas in the end? No, we all know it!

Tariq Karim, a Bangladeshi diplomat who also served as former High Commissioner of Bangladesh in India writes in an article in The Daily Star, about his experience of being present at the proceedings of the 50th national conference of the African National Congress at Mafikeng, South Africa on December 18, 1997. This was the occasion when the ANC was convened to elect new leadership to replace him. He writes:

In his valedictory handing-over speech, Mandela, addressing his successor, among other things stated: “Let me assure you and the people of our country that, in my humble way, I shall continue to be of service to transformation, and to the ANC, the only movement that is capable of bringing about that transformation. As an ordinary member of the ANC, I suppose that I will also have many privileges that I have been deprived of over the years: to be as critical as I can be; to challenge any signs of ‘autocracy from Shell House’; and to lobby for my preferred candidates from the branch level upwards.” Having said the above, “Madiba” (as Mandela was endearingly and reverently addressed by his countless admirers) deliberately put aside his prepared text for a few moments to ringingly assert words to the following effect: “My President, for you, are from today the President of my Party and I am just an ordinary foot soldier, let me assure you of my loyalty to your leadership and decisions; but let me also assure you that even as an ordinary foot soldier of the Party, I reserve the right to criticize you when I observe you making mistakes. Do not surround yourself with ‘yes men’, for they will do you and the nation incalculable harm. Listen to your critics, for only by so doing will you become aware of the disaffection that ails your people and be able to address them.”

In a world where leaders play every trick and use every tool they have to stay in power, it’s hard to imagine that there was this man who if wanted could have easily stayed in power forever. There was no dearth of yes-men and sycophants hovering around Mandela, urging him to remain in power. But Nelson Mandela, the stature this man had ignored such flattery and ill-advice. True Leaders never succumb to Yes-men and sycophancy.

Just stop, pause, think, and reflect!

A key trait in leadership is decision-making. No place for inaction, a leader needs to keep taking good and right decisions. Every decision a leader takes impacts the lives of many people and the fate of the organization.

So, it is the prime duty of any leader to do what it takes to help them make the right decisions. But, when you surround yourself with people who never disagree with you, who never offer a strong opinion, who will never challenge your thinking, never give you constructive feedback, and who always go by what you say, how do you expect to get the harsh realities, unfiltered truth, unadulterated feedback, and critical information. These traits are key when it comes to taking good and right decisions.

When people blindly follow your ideas, inputs, decisions, and opinions, you as a leader start suffering from an illness, become a victim of a bias called “confirmation bias”- the mother of all biases.

You know what happens in this mode: well, you start feeling that whatever you know is right, whatever you think is right, whatever you do is right and you only hear what you want to hear. You have to decide is it the right thing for a leader.

Now the question is hot to know whether you are surrounded by yes-men. Simple, ask yourself this question:

When was the last time in a week or fortnight somebody somewhere who was not senior or superior to you gave you some critical feedback, disagreed with you, gave you a different viewpoint? Ask yourself if you like to hire people who are like you.? If your answer is “No” to all the questions then you know that you are unfortunately surrounded by like-minded people.

There is a very old and overused phrase in the business world: people are your most important asset.

Now the question is are leaders utilizing those assets or it’s going underutilized. The 21st century is a brain-based economy. And if you don’t hear your people, listen to their voice, don’t give them a chance to open their minds, you’re wasting this precious asset. What a waste!

The solution:

If asking you not to surround yourself with any yes-men is asking too much, then at least have one or two people around you who can give you an unbiased opinion, unfiltered truth, a different viewpoint, and if needed can disagree with you. Go out talk to people who are your critic. Reach out to people who have diverse viewpoints. Develop an appetite for a contrarian view.

Whether we like it or not you’ll have to come out of the comfort zone, the self-created cocoon. It is a bubble that needs to be broken. Is it easy? No! absolutely not. Nothing is easy especially leadership. If you are looking for an easy path then leadership is not for you.

Let me leave you with a very powerful quote, “A 100 yes men cannot equal one honest and contrarian view and advice.”

I am eager to know your thoughts and opinions on this subject. Please do comment in the section below!

Happy Leading!

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