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Leadership Doesn’t Require Absolute Power, Blind Obedience

I’ve been to Bangkok, Thailand twice, and while there saw an institution we haven’t worried about in America since the Revolutionary War:  A King.

And that made me think about absolute power and blind obedience.

Thailand’s King, in his 80s, is the world’s longest reigning monarch.  He has no official power in the government, but is revered and practically adored by his people.

Everywhere you go, you see his image.  On billboards, on gigantic murals on multi-story buildings, in stores, car-dealerships, and roadside shrines.  You just can’t get away from seeing his image.  It’s like a real world pop-up ad.

Even without an official government role, the King of Thailand is very influential.  A few years ago the military overthrew the government in a bloodless coup, and ousted a very popular Prime Minister.  But the people didn’t object.

Why no outcry about the military ouster of a popular Prime Minister?

Because after the coup, the military junta went for an audience with the King, and His Majesty gave his blessing to the whole thing.  Since it was OK with the King, people took their children downtown to have pictures taken with soldiers and tanks.

Thailand is a great place, a democracy that enjoys most of the freedoms of Western democracies.  And the people were friendly, the scenery gorgeous, and the food delicious.  But the monarchy got me thinking about absolute power and blind obedience.

Many leaders try to exercise that kind of power, that kind of authority, in the workplace.  They don’t want anyone to question their leadership, their decisions, anything.  Blind obedience is what they want, and what they sometimes get.

A paradox of leadership, though, is that as leaders, we’re totally dependent on our employees, because we rely on them for information.

Information is the lifeblood of an organization, and of leadership.  We need information to make sound decisions about strategy, about competing in the global market place, and other areas essential to company success.

But we can’t know everything, any more than we can be everywhere.  That’s why we rely on our frontline employees and managers, those who have the most contact with customers, to funnel us the information we need to make decisions.

If our attitude is that we know everything, that we see everything, and that we don’t want to hear anything from blindly obedient employees, we’ll soon be out of business.

That’s why we want to surround ourselves with people who see things from a different perspective.  We want people to challenge the assumptions we use in charting a course.

We don’t get this information from blind employees.  And when we demand blind obedience, we usually get blind employees.  Another way of looking at this is that as leaders, WE are the ones who are blind.  That’s why we need employees who can see.

In Thailand, it’s actually against the law to criticize or otherwise “affront the dignity” of the King.  Again, some work places operate on a similar principle.

How to tell if you’re someone who demands blind obedience?  If your image is everywhere in the workplace, including screensavers, that’s probably one indication.

Another is your meetings with your direct reports.  If meetings involve one way communication going from you to them, in essence a monologue, then you’re probably managing in an autocratic way.

If direct reports don’t challenge you, or question your assumptions, chances are your direct reports are probably afraid.  These meetings are your opportunities to get their input.  If you’re not getting it, you’re slowly going blind.

Our capacity to think and to question, whether about politics, religion, or other important issues, is what makes us human.  So when we expect blind obedience, we lessen the humanity of those we are trying to lead.

What are you doing to make sure that your direct reports aren’t afraid to challenge you?  How comfortable are you with criticism?  With differing opinions?

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