You’ve heard me say repeatedly in these Leading Thoughts that leading an organization is much about creating a culture within that organization. Part of your decision about the nature of that culture is determining the level of dissent you are willing to allow.
We are watching today a debate in the Republican party in the United States about how much dissent they will allow in their ranks. It is really a question about how big their tent is going to be. Can a party leader keep their position and have voted to impeach Donald Trump? Can a rising party member still rise if they believe it is a “Big Lie” that the 2020 election was stolen? In other words, can those who disagree about Trump, disagree about the election being stolen, and perhaps even disagree about Trump’s complicity in the uprising of January 6 still walk together under the same banner?
These Leading Thoughts aren’t about politics or I would venture an answer. These Leading Thoughts are about leadership cultures so I will examine the higher principle involved here.
It is the job of all leaders to set a vision and build a culture in service of that vision. Part of that culture is determining how much dissent, how much disagreement, will be allowed in the “house,” in the firm, or in the ranks.
I once worked for a bridge building company. I remember that the owner was on my bridge one day and when he asked an opinion of a senior engineer, he got a rough rebuke. You see, this owner liked clear, strongly-expressed opinions, so he often hired ex-Navy engineers. He also created a culture in which every man knew he was expected to express his mind and express it fully. Anything less was betrayal of the owner. The owner himself had said as much. So when the owner asked that engineer his opinion, the opening line of the answer was, “It ain’t workin’ because you didn’t do what I damn well told you to do. We hadn’t finished the re-bar before you started the pour and so now we have to hammer the whole thing out. It’s your @#*&# fault. Get out of my way and I’ll fix it.”
Now, I was nineteen and naïve and I expected the engineer to be fired on the spot. Instead, the owner smiled, slapped the man on the shoulder, and said, “Okay, Skipper. Get to it.”
Only later did I learn that something good had happened. An owner had fashioned a culture that served him well, in which his ex-Navy leaders could thrive, and which could make his company a success. It was raw. It was hard-hitting. It was sometimes brutal. It also helped to build one of the most successful construction firms in the nation.
The important thing is that the leader created a culture and in doing so set the level of dissent and conflict that was allowed. Everyone knew what to expect. Everyone knew when they could let fly. It was one of the healthiest cultures I’ve ever seen.
Now, the GOP has not done this. No one knows if this is the party of Trump allowing no dissent or the party of conservative values in which Trump is merely an ex-leader. No one is leading, because leaders set cultures, set expectations. They don’t just punish apart from principle.
This isn’t about the GOP. This is about you. What level of dissent and hard feedback do you allow in your firm’s culture. In fact, what level of dissent do you allow in all the cultures you are responsible for?
Decide. Build. Don’t let this matter be the great unsaid in your life. Leadership is culture building, and part of culture building is deciding how much dissent you are going to allow.