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Will They Tell You You're Naked?

Modern leaders can learn some unexpected lessons from Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale.

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Having people agree with you and respect you is a wonderful thing. Being secure in the sense that others are in your corner is the essence of leadership. 

But having others agree with you all the time is a slippery slope. What if people are not really agreeing with you? What if they’re merely pacifying you? Though you may think you are leading and establishing consensus, you may actually be the emperor with no clothes. 

In Anderson’s fairy tale, a vain emperor hires tailors to make him an outfit from cloth that is visible only to the wisest people. The tailors make a show of displaying the invisible cloth, the emperor claims he can see it, and he asks the tailors to make him an outfit from the wonderful material. 

Robed in his new attire, the emperor proudly marches in a royal procession before the public. The crowds pretend not to notice that he’s naked. However, a small child, not schooled in the political niceties and customs, loudly remarks that the emperor has no clothes.

How can you tell if you’re having a wardrobe malfunction?

1. When nobody dares tell you no. If the last time you heard an honest and heartfelt no was when you asked for an increase in your allowance, you've got a problem. Sometimes no sounds like a big roadblock--and hearing no from team members makes them sound cynical and lazy. But sometimes no is a good thing. No can encourage you to think of better ideas or use different resources. No can lead to better and more involved discussions with all team members. 

2. When you can always achieve consensus in 10 minutes or less. If you never have trouble selling your ideas and getting buy-in, something is up. True consensus building is hard work. If it is easy for you to get buy-in, if you find yourself never having to negotiate or compromise to keep people in your corner, then be careful. They may be reacting to your crown rather than your ideas.

3. When everyone is willing to give you credit. All the time. Taking credit and wanting recognition are basic to human motivation. But when everyone is willing to give you credit for ideas and initiative, it behooves you to ask why. Why are they not willing to share the front stage?  It could be that they are fully aware that you are the genius behind everything.  Or maybe they know you’re not willing to share credit. 

4. When others think that your hallucinations are visions. Leaders have visions, but visions have to be grounded in a concrete reality.  Often visions spin out of control, unrelated to anything in the real world. If no one forces you to make your visions concrete, maybe it’s because everyone thinks your "visions" are actually hallucinations.

5. When they marvel at your capacity. We all want positive feedback, but adoration and worship may go too far. That sense of awe and flattery you’re feeling may be signals that the troops are not celebrating your capacity but rather placating your ego. 

Good leaders want to know if they are wearing an invisible outfit.

Last updated: Oct 19, 2012

SAMUEL BACHARACH is the co-founder of Bacharach Leadership Group (BLG), specializing in leadership development programs with an emphasis on micro-skills: change, execution, negotiation and coaching. He is the McKelvey-Grant professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University’s ILR School. His books include Get Them on Your Side and Keep Them on Your Side.
@samuelbacharach




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