,

Who Is Your Chorus? Why Senior Executives Need Truth-tellers.

A top-ranking leader has just instituted an unpopular policy—one that, in fact, challenges the ethics of those he leads. A lone woman under his leadership questions and defies him. Eventually, everyone the leader oversees begins to distrust him, but the leader still does not change course. Instead, he decides to make a public example of the woman who challenged his authority.

The scenario above comes not from a company’s boardroom but from Sophocles’ classic drama Antigone. And no classic Greek drama would be complete without a chorus to comment on the actions of the main players. In this case, the chorus tells the powerful leader—King Creon of Thebes—to reverse his unpopular policy. It’s an important message, and Creon eventually heeds it.

26017399713_0e06db2a65_z

Despite the differences between Greece in 400 B.C. and corporate leadership today, I frequently ask senior executives the simple question: Who is your chorus?

In ancient Greece, the chorus offered incisive commentary and gave both warnings and moral judgments about the protagonist’s actions. The chorus was typically detached and uninvolved in the drama itself. Because of this distance, they did not face the same pressures and were able to better anticipate consequences, clarify values, and freely speak the truth.

Senior executives need such truth-tellers more than most. Unfortunately, because of the time pressures of leadership and the headiness of their roles, it becomes easy for leaders to miss out on deep conversations about their values and the consequences of their habits, behaviors and decisions on those they lead. This leaves leaders vulnerable.

Too often in business education and in leadership training programs, we focus exclusively on developing knowledge, skills and tools (horizontal development) without much clear-sighted focus on maturation and integrity (vertical development). Such maturation demands strong social support; and solid, truth-telling relationships are paramount. But, as a senior executive, how does one make time for rich, longstanding relationships? As I work with my clients to identify and empower their chorus members, we typically review a few key areas. I suggest having truth tellers from each:

  1. Work.

A Gallup poll that measures workplace engagement asks, as one of 12 questions, whether an employee has a best friend at work. Friendship is that important and common in the workplace. However, there are complications to workplace friendships for top leaders. These primarily arise from competing commitments—your allegiance to your friend vs. the success of a division; or your affinity for your friend vs. your need to treat others fairly. In addition, it is rare to find a complete truth-teller amongst those you lead. If you can find clear-sighted challengers at work, they are invaluable, as they both understand you and the context within which you lead.

  1. The Tribe Outside.

Because friendships at work can be so fraught, friends outside of work take on paramount importance. If you’re lucky, you build such friendships over time—with peers from business school or from your early years in a corporation, law or professional services firm where you rose together.

For those who have built their career in different ways, many groups exist to facilitate these relationships. For example, a CEO Forum, Vistage Group or YPO Forum will offer groups intentionally created with peers from non-competitive companies. Intense and niche-focused Executive Education programs offer similar benefits. For example, at Kellogg, our popular programs through the Center for Family Enterprise bring together top leaders in multi-generational, complex, family-owned enterprises. Without a doubt, the peer-experience of this program is among the most powerful for our participants.

  1. The “Ties That Bind.”

What can old friends and close family provide that peer groups cannot? These are the people who remind you where you came from and what you stand for. They take you as you are, and in the best case, can provide you with a mirror that makes decisions clear, allowing you to sleep well at night. They become your chorus by making you reflect on their assessment of your leadership decisions, so that you find yourself asking, “What would such-and-such say about this?”

  1. A Chorus by Profession and Position.

Finally, it is helpful to add to your chorus those in “helping” professions or those who are truth-tellers by nature of their relationship and history with you: an executive coach, former teachers, counselors or a long-time personal or professional mentor. Some executives find expert guidance through their spiritual communities. These are the individuals that leaders describe as holding them accountable on a very routine basis for auditing their actions and comparing them with their ideals.

When you’re tasked with big decisions every day—when the welfare of a business and many other people is on your shoulders—it’s tempting to forge ahead alone or to surround yourself with people who think similarly, or who will simply agree with you or affirm your instincts. We have literally thousands of years of examples of this. But taking the time to formulate and empower a strong and vocal chorus—one that will cry out when you lose your way— is one of the most important safeguards you can put in place.

Photo credit: Rande Archer via creativecommons.org.