Do you have a “Challenger in Chief”?


Earlier this week I was saw this post in The Management Tip of the Day from Harvard Business Review: 

Encourage Your Team to Challenge You

“We’re all drawn to people who repeat back to us what we already believe. But dissent, not consensus, leads to smarter decisions. Still, few leaders actively seek out challenging opinions. Are you clearly signaling to your team that you want to hear views different than your own? When people are encouraged to express divergent opinions, they share more information, reconsider assumptions, identify creative alternatives, and alert you to errors. Let your team know you welcome their opinions even—especially—if they differ from yours. Or take it a step further: Enlist a trusted Challenger in Chief to interrogate you about the decisions you’re making, inviting you to rethink, contradict, or even refute your position.”  “Every Leader Needs a Challenger in Chief,” by Noreena Hertz.

This post and the article it was derived from caused me to reflect on a panel discussion I facilitated the previous week at the Women’s Leadership Breakfast for the Illinois CPA (ILCPA) Society.  The semi-annual breakfast brought about 300 accounting professional together to celebrate the winners of the annual “Women to Watch” awards.  Every year the Women’s Executive Committee (of which I am an active member) of the ILCPA Society selects both emerging and experienced leaders from an impressive pool of worthy candidates.  The winners – from public accounting, industry, government, consulting, etc. are presented their award at an annual breakfast and participate in a facilitated panel discussion.  The discussion is always lively and inspirational as the audience witnesses what it takes to be an effective leader.

One of the questions came from the audience – from a young, aspiring, future leader, who asked what her role should be in a mentoring relationship as the mentee.  I thought it was an interesting question and actually provoked about a 10 minute conversation (in a 50 minute program) amongst the winners.  Here is summary of some of the points that were made:

  • Mentoring is a two way communication, the mentor should be providing feedback to the mentee and actively seeking feedback in return
  • Open and honest communication / feedback is the key – both parties need to be willing to deliver tough messages to each other
  • The leaders believe they benefit as much, if not more than the mentee when soliciting constructive criticism
  • Leadership is about always being open to learn and learning can only happen when you are open to divergent viewpoints

What type of leader are you?  Do you seek out people that merely confirm what you already believe or do you seek out and encourage views that are at odds to your own?   Here are a few of my favorite quotes:

“I was never the smartest guy in the room. From the first person I hired, I was never the smartest guy in the room. And that’s a big deal. And if you’re going to be a leader – if you’re a leader and you’re the smartest guy in the world – in the room, you’ve got real problems.”  Jack Welch

“The best way to get a good idea is to get lots of ideas.”  Linus Pauling

Do you have a “Challenger in Chief” in your organization?  Every leader needs one or more “challengers” and those people can be other leaders, peers and even mentees as long as they are willing to challenge your thinking or decisions.  Some of the best leaders in history opened themselves up to divergent points of view and welcomed dissent.  Think about that the next time you veer toward those individuals that simply agree with you – you may find that there is an opportunity for the teacher to learn from the students. 



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