A lesson for all leaders: Sometimes doing the right thing can be undone by doing it the wrong way.
For the past couple of weeks the circus spotlight of politics has been played on Hillary Clinton’s use of a private e-mail system while she served as Secretary of State. Apparently she didn’t want to use the free one at work, so she and Bill just got one of their own and commingled yoga appointments with affairs of state. Of course the Republicans went ballistic, viewing this private e-mail system as some type of nefarious secret plot on the part of Hillary.
Did it surprise you at all that some of the Republican senators who were the most vociferous in their attacks on the Clinton e-mail system admitted they didn’t know what e-mail is and had never sent one? On a related front, maybe the 47 Republican senators would have been better off using a private e-mail for their letter to the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; rather than releasing it to FOX News.
But I digress. The public exposure of Hillary’s private e-mail system does raise some legitimate issues and questions. (It should be noted that the Republicans in Congress were apprised of this private e-mail system over two years ago, when Hillary turned over e-mails dealing with the Benghazi attack.) Since Clinton was conducting sensitive government activity, it is appropriate to question the security of her e-mail system. Were there communications that should have been disclosed or at least properly cataloged and preserved? Was it even legal for a high government official to use this type of private e-mail system?
In addition, the idea of a secret e-mail system resurrects and reinforces the 20-year pattern of the Clintons being less than transparent in their personal and public activities. Going back to the 1992 Whitewater scandal, all the way up to current questions about the Clinton Foundation, the Clintons seem to have had a phobia about transparency; they have released information only when forced to do so. In fairness, no wrongdoing by the Clintons (except for one minor indiscretion by Bill) has ever been shown, but this lack of openness has created the perception of shady or even illegal activity.
The same can be said regarding the current Hillary e-mail brouhaha. Hilary’s response to “e-mailgate” was late in coming and her rationale (“it was more convenient than having two phones”) has been a bit muddled and weak. Equally telling was Clinton’s comment that if she had to do it over again, she would have taken a different approach. What emerges from that confession is that Hillary may have been guilty of poor judgment, but not of violating the law. No matter how she responds though, she is still vulnerable to the accusation that she must be hiding something.
A Lesson To Learn
There is an important lesson to learn here for anyone in leadership. The reality is that people – especially critics – respond less to what a leader does than how they do it. A leader can be more successful when the focus is on what they are doing, rather than how they are doing it. But for that to happen, leaders must be transparent and willing to accept candid advice from others.
Individuals rise above others to become leaders by exhibiting commitment, talent and effort. Unfortunately, as the position and power of the leader increases, there are fewer and fewer brave souls who are willing to question or challenge their ideas and actions. This unwillingness to question the leader may be good for their ego, but it strips them of the protection they need against doing what should not be done or doing what should be done the wrong way.
It is telling to note that in referring to the private e-mail issue, Clinton said, “It would have been better if I had simply used a second e-mail account … but at the time, this didn’t seem like an issue.” This means that Clinton did not think the issue through; not surprising considering all the other responsibilities she had at the time. It means she did not ask, “What will this action look like when it becomes public.” It also showed that she was either not seeking or not listening to advice from others. This is a trap the individuals in positions of leadership and power often fall prey to.
There is a progression in leadership that if not forcefully resisted, can result in the failure of even the strongest leaders. Early in the tenure of leadership there is a willingness to be open to a wide range of ideas and even constructive criticism. But as experience is gained, especially if that experience is one of success, there is a tendency for the leader to narrow the opening that allows divergent ideas or suggestions to enter into the mix of the leader’s thinking and acting.
This disconnect begins small but becomes compounded as the power of the leader increases and there are fewer and fewer people willing – or even allowed – to offer unembellished opinions to the leader. So either because they have succumbed to their own feeling of invincibility or the power structure has choked off divergent ideas, the leader becomes more and more isolated with his/her thoughts.
Moreover, experience and success can tempt the leader to believe they have all the answers, but yielding to that temptation is the ultimate death knell of effective leadership. And often a leader (think of Hillary Clinton and Richard Nixon here) will come to believe their mission and work is so important that they have the right to use any means to accomplish it and others will be castigated as not supportive if they question how or why the leaders do what they do.
Avoiding the “Big Man” Trap
The only way for a leader to avoid falling prey to the false invincibility of “knowing it all” is to make sure that there are always those close by who are not only allowed, but encouraged to question and challenge – not the ideas of the leader—but the tactics and strategy used to achieve the objective. The leader must have enough confidence in their ability to say to others, “Look I know I’m good. You don’t have to tell me that. What I need from you is to tell me when I am off base.” In effect, a leader needs a “burr under the saddle” that will constantly question tactics and give perspective as to how actions may appear to others.
Those who serve in such roles are not malcontents or complainers. To the contrary, they may not have their own ideas for accomplishing the objective. Indeed, it works best if the individual questioning and challenging the leader has no personal axe to grind. Their value is to view the issue from a different perspective and to question and constructively challenge what has been proposed. This forces the leader to at least consider other actions and options to achieve the objective.
There is another benefit for the leader when they are always open to contrary viewpoints on tactics and strategy. Leaders will be identified as being different from others, and this builds a real bond of appreciation and loyalty from those who work for them. The followers appreciate the opportunity to have their viewpoint heard – without recrimination – and to be appreciated as offering value in the process. Invariably this creates a loyalty to the leader and a sincere desire to help the leader be successful.
And the Moral of the Story …
In the perspective of all that is actually important in the world, the fact that Hillary Clinton used a private e-mail system when serving as Secretary of State is a proverbial gnat on an elephant’s ass. As it turned out Hillary complied with the letter of the law, but did not have the sensitivity to recognize the spirit of the law. The current situation would never have emerged if someone close to her had been charged with and allowed to ask the question: “What will this look like if the private e-mail system becomes public?” If, at the start, Clinton had openly disclosed the system and allowed the State Department to install systems and procedures to monitor it, there never would have been an issue.
But this is a good lesson not just for the elite and powerful in politics, it’s a good lesson for any leader. The aura of authority and the typical corporate structure creates a “core of power” that by its nature suppresses diversity of ideas, challenge and criticism. The presence and freedom of those who can question and challenge tactics and action may at times be frustrating and an irritant for leaders, but they perform a very important function. As a leader, you may never know how many bad decisions such an open environment will prevent, but it will make all your decisions better.