by Bill Doughty
Remember the Hans Christian Andersen story of The Emperor’s New Clothes, in which the emperor is fooled into thinking he was wearing the finest regal wear even though he was naked? His ministers were too afraid or powerless to tell him the truth even though he paraded in front of the townspeople (until a young boy, free of fear or pretension, told the truth).
How does a follower tell the emperor he’s not wearing any clothes?
A courageous follower can counteract evil advisors, sycophants and the leader’s own inner demons by taking initiative, assuming responsibility, building trust and challenging tactfully, always focusing on the common purpose (vision/mission).
Ira Chaleff shows how to do all of the above and more in The Courageous Follower: Standing up to and for our leaders. The third edition is updated to incorporate strategies and techniques within a hierarchy.
I met Chaleff recently after he spoke at a conference and presented some of the science behind his revelations. We conducted this interview on Oct. 10, 2011.
Can your principles of questioning authority -- challenging the hierarchy -- really work in the military chain of command? How?
“Challenging authority is best based on a record of supporting authority. When senior leaders get push back from excellent performers they pay attention. Their reflexive action may be ‘You’re out of line!’ but if the high performing junior officer holds his or her ground, most senior officers know they need to pay attention.”
You make the point that “Complaining has become acceptable in the culture” as a “substitute for courageous, honest and productive dialogue.” Do you think the pendulum will swing back? How can we encourage less cynicism and sniping and more constructive engagement?
“Complaining may be less prevalent in the military due to the high degree of professionalism and discipline. When it occurs, what is needed to interrupt and transform it is peer-to-peer courage. ‘I know the CO acted like a jerk, but he’s under a lot of pressure. How can we help him?’”
Is questioning authority the ultimate expression of patriotism in a free society?
“Our relationship to authority is complex. Some people are always rebelling against authority. This isn’t by itself patriotic. But questioning authority from a serious, values based perspective, and backing up that questioning with action when needed is what keeps a free society free. In this case yes, it is a deeply patriotic act, often taken in the face of significant personal risk.”
You admit to a North American, English-speaking perspective, but many of your principles seem to come out of nature and may be universal. Is it possible that courageous followership is a universal principle at work in the Arab Spring?
“It’s risky to claim knowledge of dynamics in another culture. We don’t know what we don’t know. Our military in Iraq and Afghanistan have learned more about cross cultural communication than most of us will ever experience. I will say that applying the principles of courageous followership effectively in different cultures requires framing upward communication in culturally sensitive ways. I have seen it done well in India where the underlying caste system still has a powerful hold. The challenge for the Arab Spring will be to sustain the free dialogue when cultural norms reassert themselves in each country. It’s high on my wish list to see The Courageous Follower translated into Arabic so it can be a resource for sustaining the transformation. If any reader can help connect me to an Arabic publisher (through one or more degrees of separation) please let me know.”
The nation’s Maritime Strategy is all about preventing war by building partnerships and cooperation, driving out fear between navies and nations. Can cooperative courageous followership be used to support the Strategy -- between leaders and other leaders, Navy and other navies?
“Preventing war is the highest measure of a military’s success. But the vision of driving out fear between navies and nations is aspirational and borders on utopian. It seems to clash with principles in the military classics (Clausewitz, Sun Tzu) on the value of deception and surprise. So I doubt that it will ever be fully achieved. But it can be strived for through as much authenticity as possible in dealing with peers and allies. Trust is the currency of leadership and (along with shared interest) the glue of alliances. Followers can do their part by refraining from fueling mistrust between leaders with poor or biased data and working behind the scenes on ironing out the details that support trust.”
In Chapter 7 you address the issue of metrics. What is the inherent dangers of relying on numbers and data alone to base decisions? Aren’t there some things or some services whose value is unmeasurable (and perhaps immeasurable)?
“You are right that the value of the most precious resources such as trust, love and honor are immeasurable. They are qualitative, not quantitative. At the same time we need to know the measure of things that are measurable to make decisions – ship readiness, personnel complements, fuel range, spikes in communication patterns, etc.
“The danger arises when we become so focused on what we are measuring that we neglect to pay attention to the risks and opportunities in the things we are not measuring. If we then tie performance rewards and penalties to measurements we further fixate attention, and we create incentives for gaming the metrics. This is very dangerous. Courageous leaders and courageous followers must stay alert for the consequences of the way metrics are being used and correct for distortions they create in the decision making field.”
Bob Dylan wrote, “You may be a businessman or some high-degree thief, They may call you Doctor or they may call you Chief, But you’re gonna have to serve somebody...” Isn’t nearly everyone in the military a leader, serving and accountable to someone else?
“Everyone in the military had better be accountable to someone else or we have rogue units and potentially a constitutional crisis.”
|Bust of Aristotle|
A thread running through your book is “balance.” Is the successful balancing of leadership and followership the definition of success itself? Is it helpful to redefine “success”?
“Balance is a condition of success. We go back to Artistotle’s golden mean here. Virtue is not at either extreme of the spectrum. For example, courage is a great virtue but courage without prudence is recklessness. Sometimes a leader operates at the extreme in a situation and pulls off a victory. There is a danger that he then comes to believe that operating at the extreme is at the core of his personal success strategy. That is a recipe for disaster.”
Another common thread seems to be the art of listening. What’s the most important thing to know about listening?
“A senior officer who is being given critical feedback or a divergent perspective will have the very normal human impulse to defend herself and explain her actions. A core competency of leadership is learning to override this impulse and substitute genuine interest and curiosity in what is being said. Seek to understand fully by asking clarifying questions and for examples that will help you understand what you are being told.”
You were inspired by a book: M. Scott Peck’s “People of the Lie” about My Lai. Should everyone, especially everyone in the military, read Peck’s book? Why?
“Scott Peck is both a psychiatrist and a clergyman. His book People of the Lie is a courageous attempt to understand evil from both religious and psychological perspectives. It is an exploration, not a definitive mapping. As in all explorations the work is uneven. I would not necessarily put it at the top of the reading list. I probably would put Stanley Milgram’s book Obedience to Authority high on the list of training officers and enlisted personnel on the dynamics of appropriate and dangerous obedience. With some sensitivity to recommending a resource from a foreign military, I would encourage viewing the Singapore Defence Force’s training video on Followership viewable on YouTube, and even more strongly encourage the development of similar resources of our own.”
You also recommend Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning. Besides the books in the bibiliography of Courageous Follower, are there other inspiring works by other philosophers/thinkers you’d recommend, especially for a Navy audience?
“Frankl’s book, Man’s Search For Meaning is the ultimate expression of our internal freedom to choose our response even in the most dire circumstances.
“For those working closely with Flag Officers I would also recommend the book Lion Taming by Steve Katz. After working in senior political environments such as the White House, Katz studied lion taming at Ringling Brothers school for lion tamers. The lessons he extracted from observing the behavior of lions in a hierarchy, and of lion tamers who successfully interact with them, are extraordinarily applicable to working with elevated leaders of different ranks.”
How important is reading to the leader and follower?
|Statue of King Alfred|
“One of my heroes in history is Alfred the Great, 848 – 899, the first Anglo-Saxon King who repelled the Viking invaders and effectively founded what became England. He and those in his court were illiterate. He knew that military victory alone was insufficient. He invited a literate monk to his court to teach him to read and insisted the same of his senior officers. He then personally engaged in the project of translating key Latin works into the Anglo-Saxon language and began the process of creating an educated citizenry. Alfred divided his time between ruling, reading and contemplative reflection. A balance we would do well to achieve in our own lives!”
Chaleff’s work belongs on book shelves with the best business and management books: Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Deming’s Out of the Crisis, Drucker’s The Practice of Management and Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.
Chaleff offers philosophical insights and common sense tactics. He gives practical advice not only to followers but also for leaders, who must have the courage to accept criticism, dissent and challenge. His guidance can be applied beyond the workplace. And, because his cited research is based on human nature, many of his conclusions are universal.