Two sides of leadership

When you’re a leader, it’s fine to ask hard questions of your bosses. Maybe you even have fiery conversations with them. These are also fine in moderation (or at least they should be), as long as that passion stays behind closed doors—because being a leader also demands that we act in a certain way in public. Among other things, acting like a leader means presenting a unified stance with the senior management team. That’s true regardless of whether we’re formally a part of any senior management team.

Why keep those differences private? I can think of two reasons.

One is that it helps us be honest with each other in those conversations. If we know our conversation will remain private then everyone can speak more freely. We know exactly who our audience is, so we know anything we say will remain in that context. We know that if we change our mind or reach a conclusion then it’s the outcome that will be carried forward, not the difference of opinion.

Another reason is that it’s usually unhelpful if our team members hear about conflict behind the scenes. In theory we should be able to explain what happens behind the scenes, but in reality our teams tend to need confidence, not blow-by-blow accounts of disagreements. This is especially the case with less experienced people, who can easily interpret things wrongly; it’s easy to assume the worst intentions, and it can be hard to separate honest disagreement (which is hopefully what happened) with personal dislike (which is hopefully not what happened). In short, it’s usually not helpful to see how the sausage is made.

Of course, it’s still important to be honest with our team. For example, it’s not a great idea to say, “The CEO and I had a blazing row and she’d only talk about getting something out fast, and wouldn’t listen to a word I had to say about thinking of the future.” It’s much more helpful to say, “This is something we’re still talking about, and we’re trying to balance our long term plans with the need to deliver something very soon.” The latter hides the gory details, but in the end what matters is the direction and the result, not the details of a conversation which could have gone a bit better at the time.

Photo by R. Miller