Unvarnished feedback stings, even if you're a world leader

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 4, 2010 - 9:11 PM

As international security experts scramble to contain the nightmarish Genie that is WikiLeaks, many of us in the cheap seats are debating another aspect of the story: Do world leaders get hurt feelings?

As international security experts scramble to contain the nightmarish Genie that is WikiLeaks, many of us in the cheap seats are debating another aspect of the story:

Do world leaders get hurt feelings?

To review, we now know that Libya's Moammar Gadhafi is afraid to fly. France's Nicholas Sarkozy is "thin-skinned" and North Korea's Kim Jong II is a "flabby old chap." Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is, essentially, a yes-man for his subordinate, Vladimir Putin, and Italy's Silvio Berlusconi is "feckless and vain." Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai is "easily swayed" and paranoid, and Germany's Angela Merkel is "seldom creative." And has anyone noticed that Haiti's President Rene Preval is drinking more these days?

Now, everybody sit down and make world peace.

Reactions to the revelations vary widely. Some say it's about time the playing field was leveled. We average folks get unsolicited feedback all the time, from spouses, parents and our teenagers, our bosses and co-workers, our neighbors, friends and former friends. Welcome to the club!

Others feel genuinely sorry for the mighty who, while not having fallen, sure have had embarrassing stuff revealed in the most public forum.

"National security aside, we can all relate to being exposed on such a personal level," said Carol Bruess, a professor of interpersonal communication at the University of St. Thomas. "We have a common sensibility of what is off limits, and a lot of this was just off limits. My experience talking to other people is that we're fascinated because we know what it must feel like. Deep down, we really do care about what other people think of us. Whether they admit it or respond to it, at some core level, it will affect their self-concept, their way of seeing themselves. We're feeling global empathy for other human beings."

Global empathy not just for the receivers, either. Bruess wonders how the officials offering the assessments are feeling, never fathoming that their identities would be revealed to the entire world.

"I keep thinking about how embarrassing it is for the communicator," Bruess said. Such comments, "are usually saved for private relationships of trust."

Lyman (Manny) Steil, who works with business leaders in 19 countries to improve their listening skills, has seen plenty of powerful people with thin skins and plenty of others with "shells like a tortoise." But even Steil appreciates the unique challenges posed by the WikiLeaks revelations.

Leaders "are sensing things they hadn't heard before," said Steil, chairman and CEO of Twin Cities-based Communication Development Inc. & International Listening Leadership Institute.

"Merkel, for example, will be asking herself, 'I'm not very creative? What does that mean?' People are either going to accept or reject the feedback, like it or not, agree with it or not, but things are now out there on the table."

Peter Lilienthal knows the limitations of feedback, solicited and unsolicited. The former executive at several Twin Cities companies is president of In Touch, a company that works to strengthen managers' capacity to lead by really listening to their employees.

Twenty years ago, Lilienthal said, the concept of confidential and anonymous employee feedback about bosses was downright revolutionary. Now we have "Undercover Boss," he noted, a reality TV show in which bosses work menial jobs and get an earful about how they and their companies are perceived by those in the trenches.

Unfortunately, it's the rare leader who is eager to embrace such news and change for the better, these experts say.

"Part of what makes us able to survive as humans is to be defensive," Bruess said. "We defend ourselves from harm, from illness, from the cold, from hunger. Our tendency is also to defend ourselves from criticism. Most people are not open to that kind of blunt communication."

Lilienthal agrees. "I'm going to change my evil ways because of these leaked cables?" he said with a laugh. These leaders, he said, "are secure in their power and, as long as you're secure in your power, you don't view this as a threat. Most have scoffed and dismissed it. There are people who can be very successful ignoring this kind of information."

But, could they be more successful by listening to it? "That," he said, "is the million-dollar question."

Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 • gail.rosenblum@startribune.com

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