Sunday, December 23, 2007

Oprah's Most Important Leadership Lesson

I seem to have Oprah on my mind lately. Maybe it’s that whole Obama thing broadcast to boredom on CNN. Or maybe it’s the fact I’m really jealous of – I mean happy for – Elizabeth Gilbert, who managed to do exactly what she wanted for a year in exotic (and fattening) places, write Eat, Pray, Love about it, fall in love and (most likely) become a millionaire. All through her writing. (I could have gone to Bali, too, you know.)

No. It’s none of those things. It’s what happened at her school this fall. You probably know what happened. There was a very serious case of alleged child abuse on the campus of her school in South Africa. If it’s true (at this point we can and should only say “if”), it’s nightmarish for the girl and heartbreaking for all those who signed up for Oprah’s vision. But that’s not the point here.

My point is actually a lesson for us all that came out of the Oprah incident: Those who have your ear don’t necessarily have your back. People kept the truth from Oprah, and your people could be keeping the truth from you.

During her press conference about the incident, she said, almost in passing, that she found out that all the girls were instructed by the school’s leadership to always have a smile on their face and never complain whenever Oprah was visiting the campus. Now I don’t know Oprah personally, but I’m thinking that it’s a fair bet that should any of her girls be unhappy about something as serious as, well, sexual assault, she would want to know about it. Happy happy, smiley smiley doesn’t cut it when you’re trying to make the world a better place. Know what I mean?

So what does this have to do with HR? Simple: Think about all the people who count on your good will to keep their jobs. And think about the last time they risked disappointing you, or even being fired, by delivering a devastating truth. How long has it been?

I’m thinking that total truth is one of your personal core values. And that’s good. But bear in mind that your direct reports may have a core value that supersedes the imperative of delivering to you the total truth. That value: Keeping their job.

Oprah has a close circle of people she thought she could trust to make her vision for the school a reality. And, as with any good delegator, she trusted that circle and turned her attention to visionary things rather than the day-to-day running of the school. But instead they filtered the reality such that it wouldn’t make her mad, sad, or enraged.

Besides the many billions of dollars, what makes you so different from Oprah? I would bet there are people you trust to manifest the vision you hold dear. And maybe you even pride yourself in gathering a small clutch of close, entrusted experts to whom you can pass the “get-it-done” ball, even giving them a fantastic, life-changing opportunity in the bargain. Well. Good for you.

Just remember, there are little lizards within us all who want to compel our brains to say to our professional decision-making faculties, “yeah, whatever, just keep our job, okay?” And when you say “okay” to your own lizard, you become complicit in choosing saving your credit rating over saving the world.

Oprah’s school staff wanted to do everything they could to keep that groovy thing going and their jobs intact – even if it meant killing the very dream that established the school to begin with. While the situation may not be as extreme in your company, your staff may be just as reluctant to tell you the devastating truth about some key aspect of your business. And, for that matter, you might be carefully editing the data that gets sent upstream to your boss as well.

Total truth – unlike other natural substances – flows both upstream and down. Make your business truth-friendly in all directions. Be sure you have a boss you can tell the whole truth to. And be sure you are the kind of boss who can hear the truth from your own people.

You may not always like what you hear. But the cumulative effect of a truthful workplace environment will make that most precious vision a reality.

If I’m wrong…see you on the beach in Bali. I’ll save a spot under a banyan tree for you.

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