Buffering a Leader

Great leaders face great challenges. They often encounter relentless opposition while seeking a path that will achieve their organization’s purpose. Read the biographies of Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Ghandi and you will find years of patience-wearing struggle and setbacks. Many less famous leaders also labor for years or decades before they see their dreams materialize.

We must take great care not to compound the real external challenges by relaying bad information and unsubstantiated rumors to a leader. These create an exaggerated perception of external pressure or hostility to which an inflamed leader may overreact. A follower who is in the habit of running to a leader with unsubstantiated rumors and gossip is serving some personal psychological need rather than the leader.

When confronted with alarming “news” for the leader we might ask ourselves:

What do we actually know versus what have we been told?

Does it make sense or do we need to corroborate it further?

Do we have both the facts and the context in which they occurred?

If an event actually occurred, what’s behind it?

Should we accept the events at face value or explore if they have been manipulated to serve another agenda into which we are being drawn?

Is the information we have sufficient or do we need to gather further information so we can make recommendations?

Once information has been substantiated, we should never protect a leader from bad news as it is an important source of feedback. When reporting bad news, we should attempt to provide the leader with options that support the group’s value system as this will be a time when values are tested:

“This is what has occurred and here are three options we’ve developed.”

“The most expedient course is _____ but it doesn’t serve our values and purpose well in the long run, so we recommend _____ .”

A steady stream of bad news may demoralize the leader and sap the will required to carry on. To balance the picture we need to also present examples of how the leader’s efforts and commitment to the common purpose are successful. Even small successes can sustain an embattled leader and group in their struggle.