• Karla Robertson

The Executive Lie

Updated: Oct 30, 2019


What stories are you telling yourself as an executive that aren't true?



Many executives labor under the myth that they are the ones that have to come up with the idea, the solution, the {you fill in the blank}. This can be very isolating and if you buy into it, this kind of thinking can drive behavior that is more directive and potentially dictatorial. Most of all, it can be isolating and distance your key staff making them perceive you don't trust them or need them. You as an executive come to be known as decisive alright....and also someone who speaks in sentences that end in a period. No interest in how anyone else thinks. You are all about you. You trust no one. You don’t want anyone to shine brighter than you. The truth is closer to this: You are afraid. of what? That's worth finding out.


This kind of leadership style can and does eventually dull anyone’s shine. There is a balance and dance between decisiveness, engagement of others and curiosity that goes on in the minds and actions of successful and brilliant leaders. Mark Twain once said, "I use not only all the brains I have but all that I can borrow." (Actually, President Woodrow Wilson said it but somehow, Mr. Twain got the credit at some point.) And in order to borrow a brain, or more accurately the thoughts it contains, you have to ask for it first. Yes, ask a question. And therein lies the threat to status for many senior leaders.


The skills that top leaders need to possess is changing. Why? Because our world and its business landscape that drives economies all over the globe is constantly evolving bringing with it new paradigms, revelations, and inventions. Leaders now and going forward cannot delude themselves into thinking that in this VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) world they are going to have all the answers. They need to have a ready network of people to tap. Many leaders know they need to put the best and brightest around them. The best leaders actually utilize them regularly without feeling threatened that it makes them look weaker. They invite challenge, disagreement and people standing up to them. They know that it actually is the smartest move they can make....and the best leaders make it often. It makes them look confident, smart, able to connect with the people around them, approachable...the list goes on. There will always be the need for the leader to be decisive in the moment and not engage others for all issues. It's about being wise enough to know when and who to engage to help your thinking on a particular issue.

The fact that many C-Suite executives have invited me to lunch to bemoan how the CEO who hired them to do a job doesn't engage them or listen to their point of view on major issues that impact the organization underscores how prevalent this is.

Sure, listening first and asking questions can make a leader feel vulnerable but often that's just a story in their head. People love to feel valuable and when you ask them for their expertise or point of view, you are giving them a huge shot of status, respect and sense of positive self-esteem. It tells them you trust them. And, as I said, very often they cover blind spots that everyone has. People want to show you what they got. As a leader, you must give them those opportunities so that they know you are open to them initiating those opportunities in the future. It actually can make a leader look more confident when he or she is engaging others and not being territorial and dictatorial. And it may actually save their butt someday!


Putting a question mark where you usually put a period is important because quite frankly, as Ret. Gen. Stanley McChrystal says in his TEDtalk, there's been an "inversion of expertise" due to changes in technology and all that has brought with it. He asks, "How do you stay credible and legitimate as a leader when you haven't done what the people you're leading are doing?" One of the suggestions he has is being open to reverse mentoring from the lower levels. Be more transparent and know that now more than ever, relationships are the connective tissue that holds the troops together. Stanley McChrystal adds that, "A leader isn't good because they're right. They're good because they're willing to learn and to trust."

So, the next time you catch yourself communicating in a stream of period-ending sentences, redirect yourself to end with a question mark. Tell yourself no lies about what leadership is. As McChrystal says, "Listen, Learn...then Lead."

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