Why Skeptics Make Great Leaders

Last Updated Feb 18, 2010 12:16 PM EST

You're in a meeting, and just when everybody's about to agree on a plan they've been debating for hours, this one guy, who's been quiet the whole time, says, "You know, I'm just not sure how comfortable I am with this idea --" and starts the whole damn debate all over again.

Every company's got them: cynics, skeptics, naysayers, negatrons, pessimists, doubting Thomases, call them what you want, I'm sure you've got one in your group. To them, consensus is a four-letter word. Instead of going along with the pack, they just bring everyone else down by turning meetings into nightmares.

Who needs them, right?

Well, let's see. Um, you do. Your company does. Don't get it? Okay, let me explain by turning this around a bit and asking you a question:

What value do you assign folks who 1) are so politically correct that they have to make everything sound nice so as not to offend anyone, 2) dumb everything down to the least common denominator, 3) sugarcoat the cold, hard truth, 4) are yes-men or women, 5) tell you what they think you want to hear, 6) go along with the pack so meetings don't go on forever, or 7) do things a certain way because that's the way they've always been done?
If you want to be a successful manager or leader, your answer should either be "not much" or "that's a trick question: fire their butts." That's right, because there's no place for folks who fit that description in a company that expects to deliver the next great product, support highly demanding customers, take market share from tough competitors, and deliver increasing shareholder value.

Cynics question common wisdom and those in authority. Skeptics call out the boss, even if he is a scary a-hole. These are the folks who aren't just okay with the status quo. These are the folks who seek a better way to do things. These are the folks who break rules and break molds. These are what we in the management consulting trade like to call "great leaders."

Now, let me take a step back from my rant for just a minute. There is such a thing as going too far with this sort of behavior. I'm not talking about people who are negatrons just for the sake of being negatrons. I'm talking about folks who doubt with a purpose. They doubt because they want what's best for their company, their department, their employees, and they won't settle for what isn't.

They don't inhibit consensus, hinder compromise, or throw a wrench into the works. What they do, however, is keep the fire lit and the dialog going until the right answer is reached, and not a minute before.

Every great manager, executive, or board director I've ever known has been a skeptic. They're the Andy Groves, the Bill Davidows, the L.J. Sevins of the world. And for the most part, they're a real pain in the butt. And you know what? The world would be a really difficult place if everyone was like that. Lucky for us, only a few people are like that. And that, my friends, is why there are so few great leaders in the world.

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