An Encounter with “Yes Men” Leadership

rubber stamp
source: Thomas Hawk via Flickr

 The king of Israel answered Jehoshaphat, “There is still one prophet through whom we can inquire of the Lord, but I hate him because he never prophesies anything good about me, but always bad. He is Micaiah son of Imlah.” 1 Kings 22:8 (NIV)

Some time ago I found myself appointed to a project committee. The head of the committee was a young leader in the organization. I did not know him well, but I knew from observation that he was an up-and-comer. I was a late appointee to the committee and I did a lot of listening the first couple of meetings. I wanted to get a sense of group, the leader, and how my own personality and style might best fit into the whole.

It was in that second meeting that everyone on the committee was asked to share how they thought things were going and what could be done better. One of the first things that I had noticed was that our project leader had revealed two things that concerned me:

  1. He had an aggrandized vision for what our project was going to accomplish, speaking in hyperbole about how we were going to change the world, when it wasn’t clear we were actually going to accomplish what we were trying even on a small, local scale.
  2. He had placed himself in a position in the implementation that ensured he’d be in the spotlight, but it was clear to me that the position required strengths, abilities, and giftedness that I had not seen him demonstrate. I was concerned that he was setting himself, and the project, up for failure.

It would not have been appropriate for me to share my reservations about the leader with the entire group, so I kept that to myself. In the meeting I shared one thing I thought was going very well, and I shared one thing I thought our committee could do to improve the project outcomes.

I’m still not sure what I said that got me called into the leader’s office after the meeting. It was there that I was told I was too critical and the leader was questioning whether my presence would be destructive. He went to explain that he believed all criticism was inherently negative and counter productive. When I asked about the concept of “constructive criticism” he balked at the idea as an oxymoron, as all criticism in his estimation was negative and destructive.

It was at that point that I realized that the leader was right on one point. My presence on the project committee would be a negative. I knew I could not serve under such delusional thinking and keep my own personal sanity. At that point, I figured I had nothing to lose. I expressed my concerns with the project leader about his vision and his giftedness being misaligned. He saw this as just another example of my critical, judgmental spirit and said that it proved his point. I told him that I would quit, to which he responded, “Let’s not say you quit. Let’s just tell the others you’ve decided to take a break from the project.” I told him he could say whatever he wanted to say to the rest of the committee. I was done.

I thought about this experience as I read about King Ahab and the prophet Micaiah. Ahab hated Micaiah because the prophet refused to tell him what he wanted to hear. The king had clearly surrounded himself with “yes men” prophets who put their spiritual rubber stamp on whatever the king desired. Such leaders rarely become great leaders. Leadership requires an honest understanding of one’s own strengths, gifts, and weaknesses. It also requires wisdom to discern between good and weak criticism, the humility to accept responsibility for failures, and the strength to make changes for the good of the whole.

As I look back at my experience with 20/20 hindsight, I believe the project leader was a young leader driven both by his passion to do great things and his insecurities. To be honest, I recognized in him some my own weaknesses as a leader at his age. I believe that in his own personal journey he will encounter wise counsel from whom he can receive honest feedback, and he will eventually temper the dim view of constructive criticism he expressed to me. I simply wasn’t the right person to work with him. It happens.

By the way, the project continued on for another couple of years. I witnessed it accomplishing some good outcomes, and I chose in to contributing on occasion from outside the project committee. It never came anywhere near to realizing the grandiose vision I’d heard the leader proclaim in my brief time on the committee. The project leader eventually jumped at the chance to move on to bigger and better things.

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