Who Speaks Truth to Power?

Cirque du Soleil has a “corporate joker.” While the exotic circus of acrobats and other unusual performers is clearly grounded in creative artistry, it is a global business of enormous complexity and employs more than 4,000. The Financial Times recently introduced “Madame Zazou” in an article on Cirque du Soleil. But it went on to write about the succession plan and strategic future of the Montreal-based entertainment company. I think that the newspaper missed a more interesting story.

Madame Zazou wanders the halls at Cirque du Soleil’s headquarters 20 hours a week. She has permission to enter and lampoon any meeting or gathering, with the only limitation being the level of disruption she can create. So, does this sound like some uber-creative trendy new idea by a company with a rep for doing things that are way, way out of the box? Not hardly.

For as long as there have been seats of power, there have been people sanctioned to help those who occupy them remember not to take themselves too seriously. The court Fool was more than just someone with no other value or contribution to make. The Fool (or jester) was the innocent who could say and do what courtiers would not or could not. That is an important perspective for leaders to have.

One of the biggest challenges to being the boss is that no matter how much you ask for it, very few people, if any, will speak candidly. No amount of informality will completely remove the mantle of power. There will always be limits to the amount of candor you can expect. As one four-star advised his protégé after promotion to a flag rank, “Be careful now. You will notice that people listen more closely and nod their heads as you speak. Your suggestions become orders, and no one will tell you the whole truth ever again.”

How do you ensure that you are getting the full story about what is happening at your company? How do you minimize the natural tendency that staff and even longtime colleagues have to defer? Assuming you are not willing to hire a rapier-witted jester to attend board meetings, here are some questions that might be useful.

How are your listening skills? People naturally are willing to talk more freely if they know that someone is truly listening. I once worked with a CFO who got great feedback for his listening. No matter who came to Rich’s office to talk, he came out from behind his desk. His office was arranged so that people could sit away from the table, where there was room for all. He put away his phone and turned his computer screen away. And it was clear that he was listening fully. Interviews as part of succession planning showed that employees, peers, vendors, even the board had enormous trust in Rich because of his listening skills.

What is your reputation for responding to bad news? Bringing bad news to someone in power is not easy. Even if you do not have a reputation for killing the messenger, the messengers can feel imperiled and tentative. Telling someone it is safe to give you bad news is hollow if your history tells him that he will be there for an angry or annoyed response. As Steven Covey points out, “You cannot talk your way out of something you behaved your way into.”

How frankly can you deliver bad news? I have written here about courageous conversation before, but it deserves a quick revisit here. If you are known to be indirect or overly uncomfortable with conflict, it becomes a natural assumption that bringing you bad news will be a problem.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, July 14, 2008.