It can be lonely at the top. I’ve often heard woes from executives that the corner office is a desolate place, that they’re out on a limb and all alone, or that team members are too timid to engage effectively.
To overcome this silo effect, leaders must be diligent and strategic in surrounding themselves with advisors that are knowledgeable, rational, confident, and truthful. Without these voices, leaders can fall into one of two tragic communication voids: the echo chamber, or “talking to Wilson.”
The Echo Chamber
An echo chamber – where our closest advisors simply repeat back what we already know or want to hear – can send us swirling down the drain. We risk missing important shifts in industry, economy, customer opinion, and human resources.
Rather, the most effective counsel is thought-provoking and challenging. We must see this challenge as good conflict – not contentious, but rather a constructive method for improvement, growth, and change.
Consider the example of Dr. Alice Stewart, who set out to evaluate prenatal x-rays as a cause of cancer in children in the 1950s. Stewart engaged a research partner to help her – specifically by attempting to prove her wrong. That sounds unusual, but it was a highly effective way to support her research. Her partner’s job was to create conflict around her theories – because when he was unable to prove her wrong, she was able to move forward with the confidence that she was right.
Seeking out this type of partnership requires tremendous candor. We must be honest about our strengths and vulnerabilities and be receptive and respectful when presented with a different perspective. Invite people to the table from different backgrounds, with varied experiences and new approaches for solving problems. And then we must be willing to encourage and engage with them.
Talking to Wilson
In my book, Uncommon Candor: A Leader’s Guide to Straight Talk, I share a personal example of how I found myself engaged with Wilson, Tom Hank’s character’s volleyball-turned-companion in the movie, Cast Away. (You may remember his FedEx plane crashes leaving him stranded alone on an island with only a few parcels, including one Wilson-brand volleyball.)
Tasked with creating a wetlands education center for a new community, I eagerly presented my research, knowledge and plan to our CEO. And yet, he was disappointed. Not because I hadn’t worked hard or because it wasn’t a viable and sensible plan, but because I had not engaged a single other company employee or expert in my research and planning. I had worked alone, bouncing ideas and strategies off no one more relevant than an imaginary friend. Unlike Tom Hanks, however, I was not alone on a desert island, so why was I acting like my only colleague for the success of this project was a volleyball with a face drawn on it? Why was I only “talking to Wilson”?
Since that moment and learning that catch-phrase, I have never forgotten the importance of engagement and collaboration. There is tremendous value in bringing people to the table, exchanging information and opinions, valuing differing perspectives, and celebrating the dialogue that helps frame the greatest possible outcome.
If I offer one single strategy for leaders who are leading alone or have built themselves an echo chamber, it is this: never underestimate the power of a contradictory voice in the room. Even if they are never right, simply their challenge alone will allow you to grow, see and succeed in new and inspiring ways.
First featured on Forbesbooks.com.