“The Court Jester” by William Merritt Chase. Source: Wikimedia
There’s a tragic cycle in human affairs. A leader solves a problem and is cheered for wisdom or decisiveness or practical understanding. They’re given authority, perhaps political leadership. The adulation becomes intoxicating. They don’t want to hear bad news – no one does – and they acquire toadies and hangers-on that latch onto them like leeches. These parasites only tell them what they want to hear.
Eventually, they overreach and try to accomplish things beyond their abilities and resources. They don’t get the bad news until it’s too late. They’ve shot the messenger so many times that no one dares deliver but glowing reports. The ancient Greeks called this “hubris.” The cycle of success-overreach-downfall repeats itself in individuals, corporations, and nations. When people need to deliver bad news, they implore their boss not to “shoot the messenger.”
It’s important for companies to have systems in place where bad news can be safely communicated to those in charge before simple mistakes become costly and potentially tragic design flaws. A few years ago Proctor and Gamble eliminated half its brands to streamline its business and cut costs. Seemingly no one was willing to tell the previous CEO that the agglomeration of products as diverse as pregnancy tests and pet foods were acting like barnacles on the bottom of a ship, slowing growth and making it hard to steer. It took new leadership to see the problem and propose this radical solution.
In movies and drama, leaders often threaten those who brings them bad news. This usually happens just before they fall. Shakespeare’s leaders like Macbeth, Henry IV, and Richard III all follow this pattern. By contrast, those who keep a “fool” close to them fare much better. Only a fool – someone with nothing to lose – is willing to tell the truth. If companies want to avoid overreach (and collapse), they need to have a culture that encourages people to speak truth to power. Who is delivering bad news to Zuckerberg or Nadella or Sundar Pichai?
Ironically, it’s the fool who is often the most astute.
Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA
Charter Trust Company
“The Best Trust Company in New England”