The Value of a Sounding Board or Who Should Leaders Listen to?

foolI suspect that many of today's leaders, like me, were brought up watching westerns on TV, listening to John Wayne mouthing phrases like "A man's got to do, what a man's go to do.." and watching him ride off into the sunset. This, in a way, typified a generation's thinking of what strength and leadership was all about. Whilst many recognise this is an outmoded idea in the 21st century, it is sometimes hard to shake off some of the legacies of this thinking.

In times of Change, people feel much more secure with strong clear leadership, but they need considered action and decisions from their leaders. The trouble is, with the pace of business today; the pressure has never been higher, and thus there is always a temptation to act just for the sake of moving things off the pending pile and appearing decisive. This kind of 'shoot from the hip' style tends to makes us feel strong and that we are getting somewhere.

However, leaders are usually dealing with complex, multi-faceted problems which require more consideration. Another issue that busy leaders often are battling with are over-stuffed diaries and this means that they have little quality time to reflect and consider.

This is where I often find leaders gain huge value from working with an external 'sounding board'. They may call this person a coach, a mentor, or even a friend or colleague, but the role is clear. It is someone they respect, who they can confide in and who can challenge their thinking process. Booking time with someone you can talk to about your agenda, in complete confidence, has a number of benefits:-

All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions."
George Bernard Shaw

I normally find that the people I work with will typically leave these sessions much more focused and clear about what they need to do; more focused on what is really important for them to do and where they can afford (or need to) delegate. They usually find that the amount of work they get through in these sessions exceeds their expectations.

Time spent in reflection and exploration with a trusted 'sounding board' is a good way of reducing stress both for the leader and their organisation. Decisions that have been thought through inspire more confidence, and this raises the leader's 'stock' with his people and their willingness to follow his lead. In the end this saves a great deal of time both in needless discussion and rework, because (s)he is passing out clear, simple messages.

There is a natural 'sieving & sorting' process, not unlike doing a jigsaw puzzle, where you gather together all of bits that are similar and create a clearer, more complete picture. This process helps sequence your messages in a way that makes your overall story much more coherent and easily accepted.

As a human being, it is natural for a leader to have doubts, and it is a part of the job to explore them as honestly as possible. This is a naturally uncomfortable process and it helps to have someone support you through it to make sure it is done both with integrity and completeness. The other side of this confidence is that some people are over-confident and need to almost delegate this doubting role to a trusted third party. This was why, in days of old, kings had Fools or Jesters who had license to say exactly what they thought, as truthfulness tends to shrivel as gets closer to power.

When, in the words of Harry Truman, "The buck stops here!" it is both helpful and responsible to pause to consider whether you are planning not only to do things right, but more importantly , to do the right things! It is all too easy for leaders to get sucked into operational details and it is their job to ensure that the issues that are strategic have been properly identified and planned for. If a leader isn't strategic in the use of their own time, then the chances are they are not being sufficiently strategic in other areas!

The chairman of a very large business I work with said to me the other day that he could only discuss a particular issue with two other people in his team, and he already knew what they would both say, and he needed a fresh perspective on this issue. This is by no means untypical, and it is a wise man who knows when it is a good idea to seek help.

Another function that can be valuably performed in this safe space is venting. Once words are spoken they can not be unspoken and in every team there are frustrations, doubts and fears. These can all get in the way of the smooth running of the business. Deciding which issues are ones you need to take up with someone directly and which ones are just the result of, perhaps, you having a bad day can make you a much better person to work with.

This process is not about someone else coming in and telling you how to run your business, something that you are uniquely qualified to do, rather, in the words of Ken Keyes, they help you to "get at the wisdom you already have." When this is supplemented with a little outside input it becomes a very potent dish.

"To keep a lamp burning, we have to keep putting oil in it" Mother Teresa


  1. In 1994 British Airways appointed Paul Birch as 'corporate jester' and Abbey National also embraced this a variant of this concept
  2. The Role of the Fool

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