Recently I heard a story told about Nikita Khrushchev.* He was the communist party leader in the USSR during the 1950s. The story goes that, during his time as party leader, Khrushchev came to the US in a gesture of good will. After visiting with the president he took questions at the Washington Press Club in DC. He requested that the questions be written out. Early in the session there was a question asked of him regarding his leadership while under Stalin. The question read…
Mr. Khrushchev, today you talked about the hideous rule of your predecessor Stalin. You were one of his closest aids and colleagues during those years. What were you doing all that time?
Upon hearing the question read Khrushchev’s face began to turn red. As he looked around the room he asked, with intensity, “Who asked this?”
No one answered.
With more fervor he asked again, “Who asked this?!”
Again – silence.
Finally, with veins beginning to show on his forehead and shouting voice, he exclaimed, “WHO ASKED THIS?!!!!”
An ominous hush was over the entire room. It was dead silent.
After a long pause Khrushchev spoke. “That’s what I was doing.”
It is hard for me to imagine the climate that Khrushchev was asked to lead in. In that era it was not uncommon for those who would disagree with Stalin to either be sent to the Gulag (the massive system of forced labor camps) or killed. There was concrete precedent for bodily harm to come to those having an opinion other than that of the authority. But even in this moment – when Khrushchev was on U.S. soil. When there was no threat of Gulag or execution – silence.
For me, this story is a great example of our last principle of leadership. “It’s Risky”.**
It is no wonder to me why board rooms, offices, city halls, fellowship halls and kitchen tables often grow silent when tough issues are at play. It’s uncomfortable to engage when the stakes are high. And not only uncomfortable – differing opinions could cause riffs. My involvement could lead to people not liking me. Others might even say bad things about me. My reputation could be tarnished. I don’t need the grief.
There is always a cost to getting in the game. Always. And most of us, on a regular basis, are being invited to take our place. That’s why, in my opinion, growing in our skills to lead more effectively should motivate all of us. Why? Because leading is about more than having an opinion. All of us have one of those. The harder work is inviting others to think with us. Be curious with us. To do the work of learning with us. So that the difference that is made isn’t just about me getting my way – but about creating a better way for everyone. That is a different work and, in my opinion, a more effective work.
Risky? You bet. Hard? Significantly so.
But the only other option, as I see it, is silence…and that just feels very unfortunate to me.
* Tal Ben Sharhar, Harvard Lecture, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nUTj9QVd-AU
**Kansas Leadership Center, Leadership Principle #5.