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Why some leaders can't spot the yes-men

01 Feb 2017

How can business chiefs and political leaders avoid falling into the trap of appointing advisors who never challenge them?   


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Leaders who surround themselves with yes-men often make this mistake subconsciously, as they naturally gravitate towards people with similar business beliefs and ideals.    

There is a natural tendency for senior executives to appoint advisors who see the world in the same way as themselves. But Nigel Nicholson, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School, believes business leaders should make a conscious effort to hire people who will challenge them. 

“The trusted advisor is one who challenges your thinking and shows you what you can’t see,” he said. “If you want change in your organisation, you need to bring in people who can help you do that.”

Advisors fall into three categories: those willing to challenge you, those who always agree with you to keep the peace and those acting as fall guys for everything that goes wrong. Professor Nicholson believes leaders should always choose the first type. They must also be willing to speak to people outside their circle of trust. 

“As a leader, you tend to surround yourself with people who are intelligent, have a broad view and share your philosophy,” he said. “If you want a contrarian viewpoint, you have to talk to your enemies and the people who really disagree with you. You have to speak to your critics, which doesn’t come naturally to most people.”

Professor Nicholson’s comments come after Donald Trump’s inauguration as US president. Trump’s cabinet features business leaders such as Rex Tillerson, outgoing chairman of ExxonMobil, Gary Cohn and Steven Mnuchin from Goldman Sachs, and Wells Fargo’s Elaine Chao.

Critics claim Trump will be too strong-willed and egotistical to listen to his advisors. Professor Nicholson, author of The ‘I’ of Leadership: Strategies for Seeing, Being and Doing, hopes that the new US president proves them wrong. 

Professor Nicholson believes that to be successful in politics or business, leaders like Trump should do more than just appoint advisors who will challenge them – they also need to be willing to speak to staff at every level.  

“In some companies, those at the top don’t know what’s going on lower down. They are insulated from what’s happening in the business, so they need to make a conscious effort to break out and speak to people. 

“All leaders live in a bubble, but the best ones know they have to talk to workers on the frontline, disgruntled customers, the competition and people who have a different viewpoint.”