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May 2014

Thoughts on Leadership and Other Things

Wickipedia defines a “straw man” as a common type of argument and is an informal fallacy based on the misrepresentation of an opponent’s argument. To be successful, a straw man argument requires that the audience be ignorant or uninformed of the original argument.

The on-line dictionary goes on to state that attacking a straw man implies an adversarial or combative debate, and creates the illusion of having completely refuted or defeated an opponent’s proposition by covertly replacing it with a different proposition. Politicians hide behind straw man arguments every day.

Because it is so widely used in political discourse and has largely replace honest debate I should not be surprised to find that the use of straw man arguments has found its way into other areas. I recently attended a discussion involving a group of executives and owner managers who run small businesses. These were not mom and pop operations but small businesses with employees and a steady base of customers. In the course of discussing the subject that brought these individuals together, I found one these individuals use just such a device.

It became evident to me that this individual resorted to this tactic because he was unsure how to explain his point of view My first reaction on hearing this individual default to this tactic was that he was letting his ego get in the way due to his inability to define the scope of the problem or put forth objective criteria. As the facilitator of the discussion, and to avoid having the group detour even further into the weeds, I suggested a halt at this point to take a break and relax for a few minutes.

Once the group got back together again, I opened the discussion on the subject of leadership and change asking the group to set aside any conclusions they may have and discuss the ethical question in front of them from the perspective of their leadership and how they deal with change. I went further and suggested that they debate different aspects of the question for the purpose of examining the merit that might exist in each person’s argument.

As successful business people they have a strong sense of who they are and what they want for the continued success of their companies. The discussion ended well that day with this group of executives have a better understanding of themselves and I learned something about myself that day as well that will help me be a better facilitator.

I find it very interesting contrast between these small businesses when compared to how larger companies operate. In larger companies run by professional managers accountability is, more often than not, given lip service, and when things go wrong, these same managers try to handle/manage the crisis, and if there is public outrage fanned erroneous reporting or deliberate media distortion these managers try to placate the outrage by firing a few people. This is almost always followed now by a Kibuki theatrical performance and lawyerly written apologies, and, when all else fails, money is offered.

I contrast what goes on in the larger business world with smaller companies like the ones represented by the group I work with, and it gives me a greater appreciation for the courage and willingness of these individuals to take on the risks necessary for their businesses to succeed.

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