It’s your job to tell the emperor he has no clothes on

images-1One of the most difficult challenges for any professional “reporting” relationship is when to point out when your boss is about to make a terrible mistake.

I’ve heard more than my share of nightmare stories about subordinates afraid to overstep their boundaries but to date, none has been more poignant or with results more horrific than the story of a four-person crew aboard a Korean Air Cargo flight in 1999 that never made it home.

Flight 8509

Flight 8509 had just departed its second stopover in London Stansted Airport a few days before Christmas and had a final destination of Milan, Italy. The flight, which originally flew out of South Korea and had a first stopover in Uzbekistan, had a rocky start. It had already experienced a malfunction in some of its flight equipment and although they believed they had corrected an issue, turns out they hadn’t.

But investigators say that’s not what got them killed.

Any pilot will tell you that whether a 30-minute trip or an 8-hour trip, protocol and communication are at the heart of every flight. Not just because these help to ensure obvious safety requirements are met, but because when things go wrong, protocol and communication are what pilots and crews use to get out of the many jams you can run into when you are in a flying bucket of metal.

Unfortunately the antidote to protocol and communication can sometimes be a patriarchal culture, where subordinates cannot correct superiors. For these 4 souls, and according to investigators, that is precisely what led to the poor decisions made on this ill-fated flight.  According to flight records and the subsequent investigation, the flight crew knew something was wrong and even revealed that there were several opportunities for the first officer on the flight to correct the commanding officer’s decision regarding how to control the plane. For reasons he took with him, and we can only speculate about, he chose not to speak up.

There was an opportunity to turn things around. There was an opportunity to possibly offend someone, but save lives.

Instead, the plane plummeted to the ground, killing everyone on board.

Playing it safe is playing with fire

Office work issues are a bit different. I’m 99.98% sure that keeping your observations to yourself will probably not lead to your untimely demise; but in a different, less dramatic sense, your actions (or lack thereof) can be catastrophic.

Think about that process your boss wants to execute (you know, the one with the gaping hole you can run a train through). Why aren’t you speaking up about why it needs to be bridged, even if it sets you back a few weeks (or months).

Think about that candidate you got that funny vibe about during the interview; the one to whom your boss wants to extend a job offer. How likely do you think it is that whatever you spotted will become a major issue down the line and why aren’t you saying something?

Think about that client whose request would endanger the credibility of your team, your boss and your organization. Do you really want to be known as a company whose core value isn’t to “always do the right thing”?

Sometimes leaders don’t want to be told they are running around in their skivvies. I get that. Not everyone has the emotional intelligence to handle being told they are wrong. But mature EI or not, IT IS YOUR JOB to bring your observations to the table. This has nothing to do with your title, your responsibilities or even if you like the person you are trying to save from nakedness.

You job is reflected in your professional ethics and integrity; both of which require for you to speak up and neither of which you will be able to boast about if you let things slide because it’s “safer” for you.

A leader has to feel comfortable being naked in front of you

If I had to put together a team for myself, (and I don’t say this often because I do work in HR, after all), I would surround myself with people that I could work naked around.

Yes, that’s right – naked. As in, completely bare, because that is the essence of naked leadership.

Naked leadership is responsibility with transparency and vulnerability. This means you surround yourself with the right people. The right people are people that may know more than you and may have to also tell you once in a while that you are walking around in all your glory and scaring children.This also means that you are humble enough to accept that there is a better way to do something and you are ready to execute on that option, regardless of who gets the credit for saving the day.

So, let’s point out the obvious: Being naked can be awkward. Displaying weakness, gaps, deficiencies of any kind can become fodder for office politics and preyed upon by team members. Thus why building the right team (and being a good team member) is so important. If your boss can’t trust you to provide them with your insight when a bad decision is about to be made, if they can’t count on you to clothe them with your skill set, your knowledge base, and your abilities – why are you there?

So go ahead – tell the emperor he has no clothes on. Do so tactfully, in such a way as to not focus on his nakedness but have him focus on the opportunity to correct him/herself. If there’s a problem, have a solution at the ready. Don’t just bring a fig leaf to cover the problem. Make sure you offer overalls.


I am not saying it won’t be difficult. I won’t even promise you may not feel a rift, at first. Depending on the emotional maturity of your boss, it may even be uncomfortable for a while. But the reality is that you are not doing your job otherwise.

Somebody has to save the team and that somebody might as well be you.

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