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Posted: April 09, 2012

Questioning the king

Even the pompous will suffer assertive inquiry

Todd Ordal

Have you watched the headlines regarding MF Global and its ability to lose clients’ money? I suspect Jon Corzine wishes he could disappear as fast as the $1.2 billion that has gone “poof” from customers’ accounts, which disappeared faster than a beer on St. Patrick’s Day.

The problem, of course, started with Corzine’s risky investment strategy on European debt. He was apparently questioned about his strategy, but not very hard. Perhaps he’s most guilty of breathing his own exhaust — having a successful career in business and politics, for at least part of his career, and assuming he could bet the farm (literally) and win.

If Syrians are willing to risk death to question President al-Assad, one hopes that senior executives, board members and regulators have the chutzpah to question leaders such as Corzine. Too often, bombastic leaders are left to their own devices. Sometimes it works. However, the charismatic, brilliant leader who gets it right some or even most of the time eventually gets it wrong — sometimes in an extremely public and dangerous fashion.

I’ve worked with a few pompous people and found that many times they put up with someone questioning them when it’s done assertively and logically.  True egomaniacs who take counsel from no one are pretty rare. Often, these pretentious leaders run over people who don’t stand up to them, but they begrudgingly respect and listen to those who will.

Years ago, I worked with a CEO who was behaving poorly, and I pointed it out to him in no uncertain terms. He said, “No one talks to me like that!” I stood up and said, “Would you like me to leave, because that’s what you’ll get from me.” We ended up working together for several years. Another client treated his people horribly and didn’t understand why he couldn’t find good people. I told him. He accepted it fairly calmly and said that he appreciated the honest feedback.

Who questions the king? I’d argue that, when appropriate, you should. Learn how to do so tactfully and assertively, and offer solutions at the same time. People at the top of the organization don’t need whiners and will respond poorly. However, they do need truth-tellers. Unfortunately, when leaders are in a position of high power, most people tell them what they think that they want to hear. Over time, this changes their perspective; they start to think that they are always right.

If you aren’t willing to put your job at risk, don’t question the king. Stability and continued employment in a serf like fashion, however, isn’t for everyone. Wouldn’t you rather end your career being the one whom everyone counted on to deliver tough, as well as good, news?

When we go along with bad behavior and ignore pending disasters, we are complicit.

Todd Ordal is President of Applied Strategy LLC. Todd helps CEOs achieve better financial results, become more effective leaders and sleep easier at night. He speaks, writes, consults and advises on issues of strategy and leadership. Todd is a former CEO and has led teams as large as 7,000. Follow Todd on Twitter here. You can also find Todd at http://www.appliedstrategy.info,  303-527-0417 or todd@appliedstrategy.info

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