The classic tale by Hans Christian Anderson of the emperor without any clothes illustrates a powerful lesson on the need for honest feedback in the life of a leader. The emperor in the story is duped by two garment makers who claim to make him a robe that is invisible to those who are stupid or unfit to rule. Of course, the robe does not exist. The garment makers simply go through the motions of dressing the emperor and he, along with his subjects, are too insecure or embarrassed to admit they do not see it. Not until a young child, unencumbered by his ego or social pressures, calls out that the emperor is naked does anyone acknowledge the fact.
As leaders, especially in intergenerational contexts, it is critical that we remain honest and transparent with our teams and colleagues. Just as the emperor’s nakedness was apparent to his subjects, our weaknesses or faults are evident to those who follow us. Even in cases where we may think we are hiding certain flaws or fears, our teams experience the consequences of these buried secrets through our actions and interactions with them. Effective leadership does not require perfection, but rather humility and honesty on the part of the leader to acknowledge areas for growth, solicit feedback, and request help and support from others. Had the emperor asked several trusted subjects for honest input on his robe, he may have discovered his nakedness before parading before a large, public crowd.
Whether you are a young leader with experienced individuals around you, or an experienced leader with younger colleagues, respect is earned and retained when others see you are willing to humbly and gratefully accept constructive feedback. Leaders with courage to make changes, or engage team members, to help mitigate harm that could occur from their own lack of knowledge or skill in a particular area earn the trust of those around them.
Soliciting and receiving feedback as a leader can be uncomfortable and difficult. An initial step might be to ask one or two trusted individuals in your life for honest and constructive criticism regarding how you engage with others. When you receive feedback, it is essential to listen carefully and accept it without excuses. Take time to reflect on what is said, ask clarifying questions if needed, and express appreciation to the individual sharing with you. It may be that the other person’s perception of something that happened is inaccurate, but the fact that they perceived it that way may be indication of the need to improve communication or bring clarity to a process or expectation. As a leader, it is necessary to communicate regularly that you welcome constructive feedback and provide an opportunity for people to give it...either through an open door policy, availability for meetings, conducting a 360 review, or responding promptly to emails or phone calls providing feedback.
Currently, as many of us are working virtually, in some cases for the first time, it can be helpful to actively seek out feedback from those on your team to find out what about your leadership is working well in the virtual context, and what might need to be changed. What contributes to effective in-person teamwork may need to be adjusted for this season. Eliciting the power of feedback is a great way to find leadership success amid change and crisis.
Dr. Jolene Erlacher is a wife, mommy, author, speaker, college instructor and coffee drinker who is passionate about empowering the next generation of leaders for effective service!