Throughout my career, I have worked with eight Prime Ministers and many, many more CEOs of very large corporations from all across the world, yet I have observed an interesting similarity: their style is somewhat similar, in the sense that they all keep their cards very close to their vest. They make you feel as if they agree with you, only for you to find out the opposite, later. They do not retreat from their positions. You find out that the impression you had of an agreement was not reflected in their actions in the field.

Some CEOs of large corporations act like politicians, akin to top leaders of the executive branch of government.

Why did they keep their agenda close to their vest? Why do we find that both groups use half-truths? Why do they appear to agree when, in essence, they disagree?

Here is my insight: as you climb higher up the corporate hierarchy, the importance of your role as an Integrator becomes greater. You are not in charge of sales, nor of product development nor of finance etc. You have others doing it for you. You do not even have to do strategic planning, because even that is delegated, sometimes. So what is your role as CEO of a large company? Your role is to integrate. What does it mean?

Your stakeholders, your top management, and other groups all have competing points of view and interests. So an integrator must maneuver and try to listen in order to find the most appealing solutions to the different political power bases. Then you must focus on implementation.

This is politics, and this is exactly what prime ministers of a democratic country must do as well.

In both cases, political maneuvering requires employing “big ears and a small mouth”. You have to be able to listen, not only to what is being said, but also to what is not being said. And you have to be very careful with what you say, because what might appease one constituency might alienate another.
Thus, acting with half-truths is part of the job, if you are going to be a successful leader of a large, complex system. To be politically astute, or to know how to maneuver, sometimes means holding your thoughts to yourself. You have to make everyone feel his or her voice is heard, without seemingly committing yourself to one voice at the expense of another.

It reminds me of how parents behave with children. You do not explain too much to them. You do not get into arguments with your kids. Your agenda is your business and then it is up to you how to “sell ” them on your decisions.

So are people like children and our leaders like parents?

There is a similarity. Like children, who want parents they can trust, we want leaders we can trust, and that means that they are open and transparent to us.

I suggest to you that in the complex world we live, this is a utopian expectation. It will not happen and cannot happen.

It is time to stop being childish and realize the complexity of the situations our leaders have to deal with, and accept their ‘cards-close’ behavior as normal and expected. We should not judge them by what they say or have said, but by what they do.

In my coaching of top executives, I tell them:“If you are not politically competent, or if you do not know how to please people and still maintain your course, then you cannot climb up the hierarchy of large corporations.” That is the reality of the beast.

I had an executive vice president, who was a candidate to become the CEO, tell me, “I hate politics. I told the board point blank that if I become the CEO, I will fire the three VPs for marketing, sales and new product development”

There was no chance the board would let him do that, and he knew it, but he wanted to be totally honest and disclose his agenda.

Guess what? He did not get the job and, in my mind, the Board was right. He would have created havoc in the company. He would be, politically speaking, ‘a bull in a china store.’

The higher you climb the organization hierarchy, the smarter you have to be politically, and that means, yes, not disclosing everything you intend to do. You must learn to keep your ‘cards’ hidden and accept your fate that you will be criticized as lying, because what you say is not always what you will do.

That is the nature of the beast and we better grow up and realize that it won’t change, no matter whom we elect.

Dr. Ichak Kalderon Adizes