Leadership by Devil's Advocate
by Ed Konczal

Prime Minister Winston Churchill, during World War Two, exemplified authentic leadership. He promoted generals who disagreed with him and used a special group to get intelligence that was not sanitized by staff who might have been intimidated by his powerful personality. He lived decades ago, but by every measure, was a New Economy leader. Leaders need to be open to dissent and alternative viewpoints. Enron learned this the hard way.

As I read about Churchill, I recalled one of the best assignments I ever had when I was with AT&T. There was a group of us who had to build a case for establishing an internal temporary management unit that would save people from being "downsized". The concept was simple, instead of hiring contractors from the outside. AT&T's business units would use people from this new unit.

I was responsible for building the business case and the supporting financial details. We were a small group of six people from different management levels but we worked as equals. Our meetings and communications were open and we challenged each other.

This was a great job. I couldn't wait to get back to the office and willingly went in on weekends. The work was difficult but the pieces started to come together and we got increasingly confident that we could sell the proposal to our senior executives. Months went by quickly and we finally got on the agenda to present our business case. We worked on the components of the presentation. There would be a few presenters and I was one of them.

As we prepared our material, I suggested that we bring in someone to one of our practice sessions to act as a devil's advocate. This person should not be familiar with the details and should be free to question, challenge or criticize us. There may have been some resistance but the devil's advocate was present at one of our final reviews.

We rolled out what we thought was a compelling case to get approval to launch this innovative new organization. We were even getting a little pompous. We viewed ourselves as maverick entrepreneurs in a very bureaucratic culture. When the devil's advocate started to grill us on some of the charts and assumptions, we were initially surprised - we thought we knew everything inside/out. But we quickly realized that the questions and challenges were helpful and pointed out areas that were weak. We jotted down these new findings and tightened up our presentation. The devil's advocate made us realize that we were starting to get hubris and were getting too sure of ourselves. Those weak areas might have been a setback if they came up at the executive review.

The real presentation went very well. We got approval and funding to proceed. Our devil's advocate review proved its value and we used this concept in other projects.

Lessons For Leaders

Authentic leadership is open to different and even opposing viewpoints. Authentic leaders know that they do not know everything and routinely seek out people who will tell them the truth.

The Devil's Advocate role is similar to that of persuader, but it's best done openly and on special occasions as a means of challenging and helping the group sharpen its thinking and test its assumptions. It's suggested as a device for preventing groupthink. (Course OrgA 504, Univ. Alberta)

"The viewpoint is that I can effectively play devil's advocate on the accounting issues and be sure we anticipate the tough questions answers. My personal opinion is that it's very hard to know who in the organization is giving us good answers and who is covering their prior work." (Sharon Watkins, former VP Enron - too bad they didn't listen to her earlier warnings.)

Some companies, when facing important decisions, appoint a person to be the devil's advocate and therefore question all aspects of the proposed action. This frees that person to take issue and argue against the proposed action without being considered to be outside the "team." (CMA Management, October 2001)

You can't learn if you just have people who speak the same truth that is dominant in the organization. The organization doesn't learn with extreme homogeneity-- with people just emulating what is already true and what is already believed, unless there are people who question very basic assumptions and who suggest alternative ways to be. Organizations can't learn if everyone is thinking and speaking in the same tongue. (Tempered Radical: Debra Meyerson.)

We all get complacent sometimes. We have comfort zones. We do the things we enjoy, that feel good, that come easily. That's why many people surround themselves with people who agree with them, think like them, and support them. The CEO of a large company does not have that luxury. (Lessons Learned From Enron, John Reh, Management Guide)

The leader should promote an atmosphere in which members feel free to disagree. Minority viewpoints should be given careful consideration, and members should be encouraged to play devil's advocate while silence should not be mistaken for agreement. (Responsibilities Associated with Leadership, Rochester Univ.)


About Ed Konczal
I spent most of my career working in a large Fortune 100 company. There were office politics, meetings, report writing, presentations good and bad bosses. My career started with a newly minted MBA. I even completed a course with Professor Peter Drucker. Little did I know that my management and leadership training was just beginning.

I had the opportunity to work with people up and down the old corporate organizational chart from dynamic and innovative clerks to bumbling, ineffective VPs and CEOs. I tried to eliminate bureaucracy when and where I could and help executives recognize that people are their greatest assets -- interesting that these are now attributes of the New Economy.

I consider myself fortunate to have met and worked with some great people. Currently, I am co-founder of Vital Relationships (formerly Generation 2000 InSite) Management Consultants (www.g2insite.com). This article is one of many other stories that my partner Jeannette Galvanek and I have written as part of our forthcoming e-book Simple Stories For Leadership Insights.

Contact Ed Konczal by e-mail at ekonczal@g2insite.com .

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Copyright 2002 by Ed Konczal. All rights reserved.

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