The Emperor’s New Clothes

The mood at the Monday morning exec meeting was one of disquiet and deception.

John, Marketing Director, had just finished proudly rolling out the latest proposed brand campaign for the company. Of which he had unusually been the brainchild. Which he had painstakingly been working on for months. And which his ad agency stoked his ego about as to its cleverness and innovation.  You get the drift.

Everyone, except for the MD who was a raving fan, and a dominant, directive and surefooted personality to boot, hated it.

Most were thinking the rationale behind the campaign was skewed. It didn’t capture the customer service essence of the new organisational strategy.

It was just “all wrong” on so many levels.

Here’s the thing. Although there was a strong undercurrent of disquiet within the room, no one raised their concern.

No one dared disagree.

Everyone stayed schtum.

In fact, it was quite the opposite. Plaudits, praise and false enthusiasm abounded.  The group unanimously agreed that it was a “very fine cloth indeed”.

The epilogue to this story is unfortunately common.

Millions were spent, they were the laughing stock among consumers and it was deemed a “failed campaign and a lesson learned” at best – an “unmitigated disaster” at worst.

And John, the poor Marketing Director?

He’s no longer with the company.

The organisation fell victim to the ’emperor’s new clothes’ paralysis. Paraded about naked, in front of the crowds, due to their inability and unwillingness to put forward a challenging view point.

This may be an extreme example of the ’emperor’s new clothes’…

…but it is a common scenario nonetheless.

So, what causes the ’emperor’s new clothes’ syndrome?

1. A culture of conflict avoidance. Groupthink. A need to keep the peace or sail smooth waters instead of using conflict to work constructively for the team.

2. A culture of fear. In this example, many minds around the board room table were cast back to last month, when Mary from HR had challenged the MD’s approach to the latest restructuring.

The public dressing down she received and her subsequent marginalisation was still fresh in their minds.

If others have openly challenged the boss and got shot down for it, or worse side-lined (or even ‘let go’), the ’emperor’s new clothes’ phenomenon can be rife.

3. Submission. Our tendency, as emotional beings, to be intimidated by the power of others – and the pressure to conform to the opinions of our peers.


1. Model the behaviour you want to see in others. Learn to tell the ’emperor’ he’s butt naked.  You can do it effectively and challenge constructively.  See here for how.

2. Build processes which enable robust assessment of ideas into your decision making. If this is done as a team it will enable you all to play the role of the wise child who calls, “he’s got no clothes on”!

3. Examine your own relationship and attitude to things. Like matters such as wanting to be one of the crowd, how you feel about challenging authority, or going against the grain.

Sometimes all the answers we need are right in front of (or within) us.

4. Build a culture which encourages open discussion. Where is it OK to ask questions. Where challenge is accepted. And there is a two-way flow of information. See here to find out how to create this.

Every one of your team members has a meaningful voice. It’s up to you to make sure they are heard.

Have you experienced the ’emperor’s new clothes’ in your organisation?

What tips for remedying this phenomenon can you add to the list above?

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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