By Twan van de Kerkhof

A senior executive once told me that he started to believe he was God’s gift to humanity after travelling two weeks to foreign branches of his company. He was welcomed at the exit of the plane, the red carpet awaiting his feet, local staff being grateful for his arrival, breathlessly expecting the pearls of wisdom from his lips. He went from the back of luxury cars to his room in posh hotels, his schedule immaculately planned, the closest a CEO comes to the life of a rock star. He was back with his feet on the ground when he returned home and his wife asked him to put his dirty laundry in the washing machine.

Leaders need to deal with the dilemma that they on the one hand need to be very certain of themselves and on the other hand have to create countervailing powers. They need to be sure and at the same time have to be aware that they can be wrong.

Leaders need to have a clear vision of where they want their organization to go, whether it is a company, a political party or an NGO. They have to be determined of what they want to be for whom and why. Only with this determination they can tell the stories and paint the images of which people say: ‘Yes, I want to follow you there’.

Leaders have to be and act knowledgeable because everybody is watching them. Many leaders think they are perceived as weak when they say they don’t know. Many followers agree with that. They want their leaders to know what they are not certain of themselves.

The danger starts when leaders themselves believe they always know best, when they think they are infallible. This danger usually starts to manifest when leaders and their organizations become successful and remain so over a number of years. Jack Welch and Cees van der Hoeven for example have been fantastic leaders for General Electric and Ahold, but after many years of success they believed they could walk over water.

No single leader is infallible, not even the Pope, whatever the Catholic Church says. Leaders have to face the fact that they can be wrong, that they don’t always know the answer. As Jim Collins wrote in ‘Good to Great’: Level 5 Leaders remain humble. They don’t allow themselves to become Sun Kings, no matter how much they are adored by their followers, see their faces on the covers of magazines or get awards for their work.

It is very important for leaders to create their own countervailing powers. The more successful a leader is, the less contradiction he will meet. The countervailing powers fade away, unless they are invited. Followers start to believe that the leader is always right – as proven by his success – and swallow their comments. It is very important then that the leaders finds a few people who have the courage to be honest.

Those contradicting voices can be within the organization or externally. It can be very good friends, if they have some basic knowledge of the business the leader is in. It can be their spouse or children; children can be very sobering in asking, implicit or explicit: ‘Who do you think you are?’ Within the organization contradicting voices usually come from people who have worked for a long time with the leader and who are not necessarily in a comparable position. Manfred Kets de Vries wrote about the importance of jesters in his books, because large companies can be compared to the royal courts of the 17th and 18th century.

Good leaders need strong countervailing powers, not in the least because they tend to be dominant personalities. Because contradiction usually fades away over time, it is the personal responsibility of the leader to keep inviting those other voices.

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