"I am absolutely positive that most leaders wish to avoid confrontation among their senior people, particularly in front of them. And that's a serious weakness. I think every leader should force his senior people to confront major issues in front of him."
- Robert McNamara critiquing Vietnam War decision discussions within the Johnson White House, of which he was a part, in a Sunday 18 October 2009 article in the Washington Post.
In the Bob Woodward and Gordon M. Goldstein article regarding Johnson administration machinations around critical Vietnam decisions, both then Secretary of Defense Robert Mcnamara and Johnson's National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy are quoted regarding their opinion that there was not enough open discussion in the Johnson White House. Before he died in 1996, Bundy was quoted as saying: "The principal players do not engage in anything you can really call an exchange of views...That was prevented by [Johnson], and the process he used was really for show and not for choice."
More and more in my consulting work, I've been speaking to leaders about the necessity of challenging the status quo. This is critical at every level of an organization, including, as Bundy and McNamara imply, at the highest levels.
Unfortunately this level of candor is relatively rare.
There are many reasons leaders fail to cultivate an atmosphere where open disagreement breaks out freely. For leaders whose leadership purpose is to aggrandize themselves, disagreement represents an unacceptable challenge. Disagreement then strikes at the very foundation of their own leadership. Other leaders who may not be so narcissistic still resist disagreement because of the mythology of the leader's omnicompetence. The leader, in their mind, always must be the smartest player in the room. Consequently, entertaining open disagreement implicitly challenges that assumption.
In contrast, the smartest leaders aren't threatened by candor. They don't view themselves as the ones who must have all the answers. These leaders view themselves primarily as skillful facilitators. With dual commitments to both the best perspective on the present reality and the most effective action decision to make to maximize the organization's impact on the future, these leaders look to their teams to work together in a way that will sift out the best approaches.
Patrick Lencioni in his The Five Dysfunctions of a Team addresses the need for open dialogue within leadership teams when he addresses another reason leaders shy away from conflict. He writes, "One of the most difficult challenges that a leader faces in promoting healthy conflict is the desire to protect members from harm. This leads to premature interruption of disagreements..." (p. 206).
In contrast, leaders that nurture an atmosphere of candor are simply expressing internally a characteristic of external leadership: a willingness to challenge the status quo. In their influential book The Leadership Challenge, James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner present challenging the process as one of "the five fundamental practices of exemplary leadership."
The business leader who speaks most eloquently about the need for open candor in my opinion is Max DePree. For DePree, the mature leader is ready at a moment's notice to subordinate his thinking to that of another. In his Leadership Jazz, the former CEO of Herman Miller writes, "Effective leaders encourage contrary opinions..." (p. 15) . Leaders "abandon themselves to the strengths of others" (p. xxi) and, in a marvelous turn of phrase, are "vulnerable to the skills and talents of others" (p. 131).
It is an open question for historians whether a different leadership style might have helped the Johnson White House handle the Vietnam War in a way more beneficial for United States' interests, but there's little doubt that a more open dialog in the administration would have made a more successful negotiation of those troublesome waters more likely.