CEOs: You’ll never hear the truth again
That is, unless you follow this advice
“When you make general or admiral in the military, they say: ‘Congratulations, general. You’ll never eat poorly again. And you’ll never hear the truth again.’ Well, that’s the last thing you can put up with, even in routine times.”
—James Mattis, former secretary of defense and Marine general, McKinsey interview
At 18,000 feet, you have half as much oxygen as you do at sea level. Pilots must either be in a pressurized aircraft or use supplemental oxygen above 14,000 feet; if they don’t, they’ll seem like they’ve had a pitcher of margaritas. Gaining altitude — whether in an aircraft, the military or a business — requires more diligence, different skills and supplemental oxygen.
In an aircraft, supplemental oxygen involves putting on a mask connected to an oxygen tank.
Federal Aviation Administration regulations require it — if you don’t do it, you won’t recognize when you pass from a reasonably intelligent pilot to a moron piloting an expensive piece of metal. You’ll probably die and take others with you.
In an organization, truth is the oxygen you need to avoid becoming a moron, and it requires special procedures to obtain. This problem is insidious, because it creeps up on you as you climb the organization’s ladder; it isn’t a switch that flips.
The more authority (really, power) you have, the more people want to please you. Even good-intentioned people. They’ll avoid upsetting you (in part because you control their paycheck), and they’ll tell you what they think you want to hear. This may be because you’re a scary leader (on the extreme end, a narcissistic leader who surrounds himself or herself with sycophants — can you think of one?), but it also may be because they respect and enjoy you. Maybe you had a big brother whom you admired when you were young. Do you remember doing things to please him?
I’ve seen this happen to very good people. A CEO title and a big salary are only part of the problem. Some of them are wonderful people, but when you’re breathing thin air for a long time, you forget what reality is. It might look like a sense of entitlement to most, but I know that it’s a result of not hearing the truth.
There’s a vaccine for this, and you can recover from the disorder, but both require a bit of suffering. You must find a truth-talker, ask the right questions, shut up and listen.
You may never have to eat poorly again, but if you don’t find the truth, you’ll eventually become a moron running a doomed organization.