09/01/05 - disagreeing with a leader

In today's excerpt - Robert Rubin speaks to one of the key problems of leadership:

"From his own staff, the President expected candor, and my approach was to tell him what was on my mind—though in some cases diplomatically. Clinton specifically told us during our Little Rock transition meeting 'If you all don't tell me what you really think, I'm dead.'

"That comment reminded me of what John Weinberg had once said to me at Goldman Sachs: as a CEO, you have a special place in the minds of your subordinates. People in your own organization have a natural tendency to pull their punches around you, to soften the bad news and try to tell you what they think you want to hear. Because you are a bit of a king, you can easily get an unrealistic sense of the wisdom of your own views and your merits as a leader. (Walter Mondale once told me that when he was Vice President and then his party's presidential nominee, everyone laughed uproariously at his jokes. Then he lost the election and realized he wasn't so funny after all.) To keep a realistic sense of yourself and to make well-informed decisions, you have to go out of your way to make people feel comfortable disagreeing with you.

"A President faces these problems in the extreme. But Clinton meant what he said in Little Rock and worked to draw out disagreement [within his administration with his own views. ... People outside the administration were a different matter. From time to time, business leaders would meet with me and express strong criticism of one or more of the President's positions—and on some issues (tort reform, for example) I agreed with them. But when the same people met with Clinton in the Roosevelt Room or in the dining room in the residence, they often either muted their opposition or even sounded supportive of those policies. Then, when I'd later tell Clinton that the business community disagreed with those positions, he'd respond, 'Bob, what are you talking about? So-and-so was here last week, and he didn't say that.' I always encouraged those who met with him to be frank, and he encouraged candor as well. But frequently that didn't work."


Robert Rubin


In An Uncertain World


Random House


Copyright 2003 by Robert Rubin


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