There’s an old fable of the mid-1800s that some of us learned as a child – it always intrigued me. The fable is called the Emperor’s New Clothes, and the morality of the narrative is built around harsh honesty.
The story tells the story of an emperor who loved only beautiful clothes. Knowing this, a few crooks came to the city and offered to make her the best costume for free, but then only those who deserve their job in her yard, and those who are smart enough, will be able to show them.
By making clothes, the Emperor sends some reliable and very intelligent people to explore them. Although none of them could see the dust or patterns, because there was nothing to see, none of them admitted that they had not seen anything – none of them wanted to be considered unworthy or unreasonable.
When the clothes are ready, the Emperor’s reliable and very intelligent people pretend to dress him up in his gorgeous new costume for the procession through the city. Everyone in the city, knowing that priority was given to those who could see the clothes, noticed how beautiful the Emperor’s new clothes looked. It was only when the child in the crowd announced that the Emperor was naked that others joined in his blatant observance. The Emperor, knowing that the crowd was right in his chants, continued the procession, pretending to be dressed in beautiful clothes.
For the most part – as I have held various leadership positions throughout my career – I have been surrounded by sincere and promising people who felt comfortable enough to tell me when I wasn’t actually wearing a “suit.” Maybe it wasn’t always what I wanted to hear, but it was something I needed to hear. This strict honest acceptance saved me from dozens of scenarios in which I risked falling victim to my own disbelief.
When we take leadership positions, there is often a struggle within us – and with others – to realize that we do not have all the answers. In the end, we were placed in these positions because of our intelligence and reliability – for the same reasons that the Emperor appointed people to his court.
Our inner struggle is usually related to our egos, because as leaders everyone expects us to lead – verbally or personally – to motivate our teammates, get their attention and control their attention. As leaders, we need to dig deeper and encourage our teammates to think differently, to act differently and, most importantly, to act differently.
When we are recognized for our achievements, we are praised for this leadership. By taking on these responsibilities and expectations as leaders, we must also bear and control the burden of our bloated ego.
Recalling the Emperor’s story, we could say that if the people around him had not feared the results of his honesty, he could have avoided such public embarrassment. Those who surrounded him would be better off if they had shown him harsh honesty in advance. Regardless of the situation – whether it’s a conference room or a city procession – we should all be open to the truth, open to the reality of what we are told that we are “naked.”
Sometimes this harsh honesty is achieved through sensitivity, political correctness, relationships or the egos of our leaders, but are these costs more expensive than other compromises such as progress and good performance? I think you’ll find the answer really no.
Take action: don’t be this emperor… Open up honesty today by creating an atmosphere of truth.