Don’t Kill the Messenger

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“The first messenger that gave notice of Lucullus‘ coming was so far from pleasing Tigranes that he had his head cut off for his pains; and no man daring to bring further information, without any intelligence at all, Tigranes sat while war was already blazing around him, giving ear only to those who flattered him.”

There are many stories of ancient rulers who opted for short-term gratification by killing or maiming the messengers of unwanted news. It is probably no surprise that none of these rulers benefited in the long run. Times have changed, but people act very much the same as they did back then. The bringers of difficult news remain unwelcome in far too many executive offices.

The result? Good, competent leaders never become great ones.

Several things make it difficult for leaders to take feedback. Tactful, constructive criticism can sometimes seem like a massive affront to an executive. These criticisms can feel like attacks aimed at a person’s core or identity. No one gave painting tips to Picasso. No one suggests to Steven Spielberg how he can get better performances out of his actors. No one tells an executive how his leadership skills could be improved—or so many executives think.

In a way, it makes sense. Individuals often rise through the ranks due to their self-confidence. This can make them feel completely affirmed in their leadership style: “If I have made it this far doing what I’ve done,” they ask, “why should I change?” But many of them fail to notice that as they climb higher in an organization, fewer and fewer messengers of unwelcome news are willing to approach them. The frank and honest truth becomes increasingly difficult to obtain as someone’s power and influence grows. Leaders have to guard against losing touch with reality.

It is never easy to tell someone that an aspect of their behavior is limiting their development as a leader or hindering their organization. I see it time and time again. People who notice unhelpful, even dangerous, leadership styles choose to remain silent. But it is not because they fear losing their jobs. They simply fear leaving their comfort zone. And if you add to this a culture like West Michigan’s—where I’m from—which tends to value politeness even at the expense of honesty, you’ll find that far too few people are taking the initiative to provide feedback to our community’s most influential leaders.

And an environment where people stop hearing the truth is a dangerous environment. An individual’s ability to develop as a leader stagnates, and issues critical to the organization’s survival go unnoticed.

For these very reasons, messengers should be welcomed. Even the most timid voice needs to be amplified enough to make it heard.

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