Bossman, Hold That Thought!
By Stanley Bing

(FORTUNE Magazine) – MY PAL MORRIS GOT A NEW JOB REcently. It's a very big job, the kind that makes people taste bile when they know he's on the phone. I was happy for him. He's been waiting to get the gig for a very long time, waltzing with Matilda while the big leather recliner was being emptied and reupholstered for him. And then one autumn day he found himself sitting in that succulent chair, feet barely touching the carpet in his new corner office.

The first thing that happened, of course, was that people wanted to know what he thought, what he liked and what he didn't, what he wanted to change. And so, naturally, he told them.

Whoops.

"Our industrial flute-reamer situation is going along quite well," he told his industry's leading trade magazine, which came in for a chinfest the day of his anointment. "But we're really going to have to take a hard look at our crumpet distribution setup. Nobody's given that a good scrub for many years." Oh, noooo! Giant moans rose from the infrastructure the moment people read that. Mushroom clouds in the nether regions of the building! Chaos! Freakout! Aieeee!

That was two months ago. People are only now getting over it.

My friend had subjected his nervous troops to one of the worst missteps of the virgin senior officer. It's called executive candor. In certain circles it's thought to be a good thing. Those circles are usually the ones whose members are comfortable justifying eight-figure salaries, though. For the rest of us, it's a mixed blessing.

On the upside, you do immediately know what the freshly minted visionary has on his or her mind. That's good. I mean, maybe it's good. Come to think of it, it's not all that good. Who wants to know what the boss is thinking if it's not very nice? I don't.

At any rate, the real question is, Why the candor? In a world where 90% of all genuine thoughts go unspoken--the world of senior management--why the impulse to share invidious and sincere opinions with subordinates and the press?

Having seen this happen many times to bosses new and old, big and small, I believe there are several reasons:

1. Nervousness. Executive candor generally strikes those who are under some kind of gun. Otherwise, they'd be less likely to blurt.

2. Excessive swagger. It's fun to make people as anxious as you are.

3. Extended frustrated festering. Perhaps the candor has been stored up in the dark chasm of the executive soul, yearning to slither out into the light of day and bite somebody. Now's its chance.

4. Insecurity. People ask you what you think. You're supposed to have ideas. You don't have ideas, but you do have opinions. So you share them.

5. The oops factor. You didn't think you were going to say what you did, and once you said it you didn't think it would have the effect that it did, and now you're sorry, but you said it and it did make people nuts and what's the matter with them anyhow!

6. Grandiosity. I can do it. I dood it.

Executive candor is founded on a deeply erroneous assumption--that the mantle of leadership carries with it the responsibility to communicate one's thoughts more clearly and publicly than one did as a regular old person. Nothing could be further from the truth. Those who wear the crown, in fact, assume an enhanced duty to say less, share less, more tightly control what comes out of their mouths as a result of the increased demand for that commodity. I believe I speak for all of us who work for somebody when I take this position. And since all of us but Warren Buffett work for somebody, I believe I speak for everybody.

There are so many alternatives: Say nice things, say vague things, say no things. All those are preferable to the spurt of sentiment, the dribble of doubt, the chorus of crust that embody the heartbreak of sudden executive candor.

This is my call: Those who come to lead us should recognize that they have not been ushered into a land where they may say what they mean and share their inmost ruminations. They are still in business, where expressions are crafted, where words are strategic weapons, where too much personality is a bad thing. Bad!

Resist the urge to let your Self run free! Maintain your middle-management reticence! It's the game that got you here!

And for goodness' sake, do us all the courtesy of honoring your lifelong commitment to insincerity. It is the highest gift that any civilized officer can offer to his people and his organization--the ability to keep transient feelings and thoughts to himself until he knows exactly what he wants to do about them.

And then? Just do it, you know? There! Wasn't that better than all that talk?

âñ  STANLEY BING's latest book, Sun Tzu Was a Sissy: Conquer Your Enemies, Promote Your Friends, and Wage the REAL Art of War (HarperBusiness), is available at finer bookstores everywhere. He can be reached at stanleybing@aol.com.