THE BLOG

The Problem With Yes-Men

03/02/2014 14:52 GMT | Updated 04/04/2014 10:59 BST

I have won and lost jobs on the back of my (occasional) inability to be an obsequious yes-man. I won a job in a powerful publishing empire because I dared to speak my mind in a room of conformity, at precisely the moment the boss was changing his. The next day, my honesty was rewarded with a full-time contract.

And then I lost a job because I spoke my mind. Obviously I always did what was asked of me but, again in a room of conformity (though this time one in which the boss visible reddened and shifted uncomfortably if there was debate) I spoke my mind if I felt my opinions - politely and positively proposed! - would make for better decisions.

I was reminded of these two experiences by the news that Education Secretary Michael Gove is being accused of surrounding himself with yes-men to the detriment of policy-making, turning the civil service into a placid organisation more likely to agree with politicians than meddle.

As if this has never happened before. In fact, 2,500 years ago it was happening in the marbled halls of Greece, a fact memorably noted on by Socrates who warned its leaders: 'Think not those faithful who praise thy words and actions, but those who kindly reprove thy thoughts.'

There seems little point in picking on Gove here. The foundation of working life is built on the requirement of yes-men (and women) and the desire for conformity - nearly always to the detriment of working practices.

Part of the reason we got into such a financial mess was due to individuals in banks not standing up and saying 'this is wrong'. Creative industries are stymied by ingratiating wannabes who never rock the boat. Our national cricket team was slaughtered because its governance was predicated on the need for people to fall into line - mavericks not allowed.

Politics and the media, of which Gove has unique experience in senior roles, together with business, are perhaps the environments most in need of some Socratic philosophical wisdom. The higher up executives go, the more likely they are to be ingratiated, the more their egos require servility. It is at this precise moment then, that CEOs should seek counsel from people who don't use flattery to further their careers.

The conundrum, however, is who's really at fault - the weak-minded sycophants or the vain leaders? Or is it that the leaders are weak-minded and the sycophants vain?

The very best CEOs and political leaders know that listening to doubters, mavericks and free-thinkers can only improve the structure of a company and the decisions it makes. The boss who gave me that job knows that, which is why he's considered one of his industry's greatest talents. The boss with whom I parted ways is, well, still in his job.

Since becoming a freelance consultant, I have enjoyed the most creative and fulfilling period of my life because I'm being sought out and paid for speaking my mind. I identify problems that no one else wants to acknowledge exist and come up with solutions that might go against the grain, add to workloads or 'disrupt' the status quo - because I'm allowed to be honest.

I might be wrong but I'm being paid to speak my mind. Yes-men rarely are. They're being paid to agree. Weak bosses want their senior executives to both concur with them and display integrity. Of the two, integrity is a far more powerful trait.

I wonder whether Mr Gove, the more powerful he has become, has forgotten that.