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Good Leaders Don't Surround Themselves With Yes Men

The head of the MIT leadership center advises: "Get out of the office today and spend more time being wrong, being uncomfortable, and being quiet."

In a much-circulated New York Times article (paywall) about US president Donald Trump’s inability to let grievances go, the closing anecdote was noteworthy. In it, Gary Cohn, one of Trump’s economic advisors and the former president of Goldman Sachs, has the temerity to interrupt the president:

In a recent meeting in the Oval Office, Mr. Cohn was speaking when Mr. Trump interrupted him. “Let me finish,’’ Mr. Cohn interjected, according to a person with knowledge of the interaction. Mr. Trump, unaccustomed to ceding the floor, let him make his point.

The exchange was news, because it was so unusual.

Three months into his administration, it’s clear Trump has little appetite for hearing views that diverge from his own. Whether it’s blasting critical reporting as “fake news,” refusing to back down from inaccuracies, or granting interviews to fawning admirers, Trump has created an environment that bolsters an ego that seems to need constant sustenance.

That extends to an inner circle, made up of political operatives, ideologues and family members. Very few seem willing to tell Trump when he’s wrong.

Escaping this cocoon of good news is a leader’s “no. 1 challenge,” according to Walt Bettinger, the CEO of US brokerage firm Charles Schwab, who was interviewed for an article in the Harvard Business Review. CEOs and other heads of organizations are too often surrounded by people eager to tell them what they want to hear, or are afraid of telling them what need to hear, Bettinger said. He asks his lieutenants for “brutally honest” reports. When he meets with stakeholders, he asks “If you were in my job, what would be focusing on?”

The best CEOs actively seek out diverse points of view, and look for new insights that challenge their own thinking. Hasso Plattner, the co-founder of German office software firm SAP, says he wakes up every morning wondering how many things he’s “dead wrong” about.

Most leaders, even ones aware of their limitations, struggle to consistently break out of their bubble. But the solution is surprisingly simple, says Hal Gregerson, who heads the MIT leadership center, and the author of the HBR article: “Get out of the office today and spend more time being wrong, being uncomfortable, and being quiet.”

Good advice. But it’s unlikely to be heeded in the Oval Office.

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