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A few years ago, I rediscovered The Emperor’s New Clothes, the short tale from Hans Christian Andersen. My children, (young at the time!) had selected it as their bedtime story. I was in shock! The author was telling a tale I was living every day in the Public Service of Canada! My kids, more pragmatic, were seeing it differently: “But, dad, why didn’t he just tell the emperor there was no fabric?” We all wish life was that simple…
After this bedtime reading, the tale stayed with me for a good while. Could I learn something from it? Everyday, we face the challenge of telling our boss, our partner, our colleague things that he/she does not wish to hear, as open minded as they may be. What is the consequence of saying something? The Minister and the Officer of the story certainly meant no harm. What happened to this Minister after his boss discovered the fraud and realized he was not warned? Should we talk anyways, knowing we are going to be beheaded, or stay quiet hoping to live a little longer, hoping the problem will go away or hoping to be able to blame someone else? A very good Values and Ethics case study!
A few years later, I had the idea to use the tale to start a conversation between Deputy Ministers of the Government of Ukraine, as part of a leadership program I was working on in this country. After testing the exercise with my team of leadership development specialists, I asked them what they thought. I was blown away by their answer: « Come on! You’re the emperor here! Why should we really tell you what we think? »
As a public servant, I had accepted that the fearful advice was part of my duty. However, as the emperor of the story, I assumed I would receive loyal advice from my team. Was it always the case? How could I know? What was the difference between someone telling me what I wanted to hear, someone giving me a sincere advice about a risk I was ready to assume and someone warning me of a real and imminent threat? They all sounded the same! If you spoke to my closest collaborators, they would tell you that I’m an initiator and a risk taker and that they are trying to keep my feet on the ground most of the time! But isn’t this the very nature of leadership? So, how could I hear the difference between deference, resistance or danger?
After pulling my leg for a while, my team members eventually shared their thoughts with me. However, with humour, they had raised in my mind a very real issue: Of course, it’s all about trust. Am I creating a climate that allow my team members to tell me the “real things”? How does one do this?
In these days where the public sector is scutinized more than ever, and rightfully so, public opinion is merciless when errors are made. Public sector leaders are held to the highest excellence standards. In his book The speed of trust, Steven M.R. Covey reminds us that organizations with high trust deliver three to four times better business results. Leaders should make building a high-trust culture a top priority. However, how does one do this? How do we extend trust? What do we do to deserve the trust that put in us? Do we admit our mistakes or do we continue, like the emperor of the story, to walk naked to the castle? Do we treat people who make mistakes in such a way as we uphold this hard-won trust or do we do things that destroy it?
Do you remember that, in that story, only one person was bold enough (or reckless?) to tell the truth: a child in the crowd. Why a child? Maybe because its judgement was not yes obscured by his ambition, his desire to make a good impression, his fear for his life or his reputation. People who play that role for us are priceless. As we caught in the daily whirlwind, we often judge them too quickly and consider their points of view too simplistic. Yet, they are the only one who tell it like it is, sometimes bluntly, but most of the time with a great deal of common sense. Do you know who does this for you? I found mine, and I hope she will not “grow-up” too fast!
You will probably remember this children’s tale : An emperor with a passion for clothes is offered by two crooks to have a garment made from a material that is invisible to those who lack intelligence or those who are unfit to perform their duties. Convinced of the practical aspect of such a garment to judge his subjects, he invests considerable sums in the making. He sends his old faithful minister and one of his officers to supervise the progress of the work. They dare not say anything. When the day comes, during a public parade with the new garment, the crowd is ecstatic at its beauty until a child exclaims, “Why is the Emperor naked? And the crowd to exclaim. The sovereign persists and continues his march proudly, naked, to the castle.
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