Sep 292011

Challenging Authority

Challenging Authority

My dad told me a joke once about a kid who as a teenager thought his father was the dumbest person he’d ever met. But then, as the punchline goes, “By the time I’d graduated college, it was amazing how much the old man had learned.”

The older we get as humans, the more we realize how little we know — and how fallible we are. One of our 13 core values at Return Path gets right to the heart of this one:

We challenge complacency, mediocrity, and decisions that don’t make sense

I will note up front that this particular value statement is probably not as widely practiced as most of the others I’m writing about in this series of posts, but it’s as important as any of the others.

Very few things make me happier at work than when an employee challenges me or another leader — and quite frankly, the more junior and less well I know the employee, the better. No matter what the role, we hire smart, ambitious, and intellectually curious people to work at Return Path. Why let all that raw brainpower go to waste?  We thrive as a company in part because we are all trying to do a better job, and because we work with our eyes open to the things happening around us.

I have no doubt that some real percentage of the decisions that I or other leaders of the company make don’t make sense, either in full or in part. And I’m sure that from time to time we become complacent with things that are running smoothly or quietly, even if they’re not optimal or even moderately destructive.  That’s why I’m particularly grateful when someone calls me out on something. We have made great strides in and changes to the business over the years because someone on the team has challenged something. We’ve terminated employees who were poisonous to the organization, we’ve reversed course on strategic plans, we’ve even sold a business unit.

One of the things we do well is blend this value with one I wrote about a few weeks ago about being kind and respectful to each other.  The two play together very nicely in our culture.  People are generally constructive when they have feedback to give or are challenging authority, and people who receive feedback or challenges assume positive intent and nothing personal.  We specifically train people around these delicate balances both via the Action/Design framework and a specific course we teach called Giving and Receiving Feedback.

It takes courage to challenge authority. But then again, nothing great is ever accomplished in life without courage (and enthusiasm, so the old adage goes).

  • Chris Tragos

    Story about your dad reminded me of this old Jean Gabin song called 'Je Sais' – translated here:

    When I was a child, kneehigh to a grasshoper
    I used to speak very loudly to be a man
    I used to say, I KNOW, I KNOW, I KNOW, I KNOW

    It was the beginning, it was spring
    But when I turned 18
    I said, I KNOW, here I go – this time I KNOW

    And now, every time I turn around
    I look at the earth, a place I paced up and down though
    And I still don't know how it turns

    When I was about 25, I knew everything
    Love, roses, life, money
    Oh yeah, love! I knew it thoroughly!

    And luckily, like my mates
    I hadn't eaten up all my bread*
    Halfway through my life, I learned new things again

    What I've learned takes up only four, five words:
    On the day when someone loves you, the weather is very fine
    I can't say it better – the weather is very fine

    That's the last thing to amaze me about life
    I who am in the autumn of my life
    You can forget so many evenings of sadness
    But never a morning of tenderness

    All the time when I was young, I wanted to say I KNOW
    However, the more I searched, the less I knew then

    The clock has stricken 60
    I'm still standing at my window, looking out and wondering


    Life, love, money, friends and roses
    You never know the noise nor the color of things
    That's all I know! But I KNOW that…

  • Bowmanave

    Excellent points, Andrew. You underscore the importance of building and maintaining trust and correctly point out that its no so much what you promise but how you behave that matters. While I probably wouldn't hold Jack Welch up as a perfect role model I do like his professed emphasis on candor and the need to have a culture that supports (and demands it). Thanks for offering valuable counsel to CEOs.