Loyal Dissent

How do you handle dissent? Do you take it personally? Does it trash relationships?


I’m kind of a history buff. Among other things, I am fascinated by the styles of leadership that have emerged on the political landscape. Oddly, even tyrannical leaders give us insight into “good” – or I should say “competent” – leadership. Even the bad actors in history rose to power somehow and I’m fascinated by their leadership style. Yes, we can even learn from bad leaders. The principles of leadership serve the villain and hero alike.

In my study, I have found a recurring tendency that characterizes bad leaders. They don’t handle dissent very well. They let the power go to their head and begin to believe they are invincible – godlike. Once that happens, they begin to believe their ideas to be the sole authority on what is “right” – therefore, any competing idea becomes “wrong”. They start to take it personally when others have a differing point of view. Notice that facts are no longer the basis for making decisions. The leader becomes the sole authority and is no longer subject to logic, reason, or accountability.

It usually becomes their undoing. Hitler’s “accomplishments” are stunning. That’s not a compliment folks, it’s an observation. He was effective. But late in his career, it became well known among his generals that disagreeing with Hitler was a bad career choice. It was his way or the highway – or worse. The same was true for Stalin. It’s a thread that seems to be woven into the fabric of tyrannical, maniacal, and ultimately failed leadership.

When I was training technicians, the first lesson was “loyal dissent”. I explained that I was the decision maker and that compliance was not optional. However, being the boss does not make one right. I let them know that if they disagreed with me, it was not only “OK” to express that to me, it was their duty. After all, I could be wrong and we want to do what’s right. I assured them that I would listen to their argument and take it into consideration. I also made it clear that I may not change my mind – in which case they should remember that part about compliance is not optional. Let’s say that I got it wrong over their objection. I never got an “I told you so” – I beat them to it! I would own the mistake and take full responsibility for the consequences of my decision.

It worked well. Even when my decision was questioned, my authority was not. I earned their respect. My employees sometimes help me correct coarse. I’ve been retired for over 10 years and I still maintain friendship with former employees.

Early in the training I would put “loyal dissent” to the test. Once I figured that they have gained competence in a particular skill, I would purposefully give them an instruction that I knew to be errant. Now I’m watching like a hawk. If they challenge my order, that affirms that not only have they have mastered the skill – they have internalized the “loyal dissent” concept. If they did not challenge the order, then I had to determine if they needed remediation on the skill, or did not yet get it that it’s “OK” to challenge me.

How do you handle dissent? Do you take it personally? Does it trash relationships? Or do you allow others to help you avoid mistakes. Do you subject yourself to accountability?

This is not some modern day enlightenment in management philosophy often purported by “life coaches” as if they are some kind of authority on management and leadership development. The bible speaks on the subject in Proverbs 15:22

“Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.” (NIV)

But wait a minute. If you pick and choose your team of advisers in such a way to rubber stamp your disposition, that’s not really council is it? One must be cautious on selecting council that has the wisdom and courage to challenge you if they think you’re wrong – even play “devil’s advocate” if they think you’re right! The litmus test for me is whether my team of councilors always agree with me. If so, then I’m not in compliance with the spirit of seeking council. Remember, Hitler’s council always agreed with him.

This posture has served me well professionally and personally. I hope by sharing it with you, it will benefit you as well. If not, you’re welcome to disagree!

That’s what I think. I’m interested in your thoughts. There’s lots of ways to hit me up so let me hear from you.

You can leave your comments below.

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Author: Mark Prasek

Christian Technologist. Find me on Twitter @DataGenesis

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