by Yonason Goldson
A CEO calls together her executive team and says to them:
“I’ve decided that I need a chief executive adviser, a strong right hand, a confidant, someone I can absolutely trust to help me run this company. And I’ve devised an innovative way to choose this person.”
She then hands out to each executive a little bag and says, “In your bag you will find some seeds. I want you to take these seeds home and plant them. In three months, I’m going to ask you to bring in what you’ve grown from these seeds. Based on your results, I’m going to choose my chief adviser.”
The executives wonder among themselves if the boss has gone a little batty. But she’s the boss and, hey, this is a great opportunity.
Among the candidates is one junior executive who, no matter how hard he works, never seems to get the recognition he deserves. Now he sees his big chance. He goes home, goes online, and gathers all the information he can. He hurries to the local nursery and picks out the right pot, the right soil, the right fertilizer. He comes home, puts everything together, places the pot in exactly the right place for light and temperature. Then he sits back to wait.
Nothing happens. Nothing appears from the soil, not even one measly little shoot.
Back in the office, over the next days and weeks, all the executives are talking about how their plants are beginning to sprout, how they’re getting big and beautiful and green and luscious.
The junior executive goes back online, goes back to the nursery, changes things around. Nothing works.
After three months, the big day arrives, and the executives bring in their potted plants, each one is more beautiful and lush than the next. And our poor executive comes in carrying a pot of dirt. He feels humiliated. The other executives are giving him looks, snickering, and making snide comments.
Throughout the day, the CEO makes her rounds. She stops at his desk, looks at his pot of dirt, makes a note on her tablet, then moves on. He’s crestfallen. Opportunity lost.
At the end of the afternoon, the CEO gathers her executives together. “This has been a very instructive exercise,” she says. “I want to tell you, that before I handed out the seeds, I took the whole bunch of them, put them in a vat of water, and boiled them. Now, it’s remarkable how many of you were able to grow healthy plants from dead seeds!
“Only one person in this office followed my instructions without resorting to deception, even though it appeared that he was sure to fail. That’s the person I want as my chief adviser.”
Did the CEO act unethically?
The first point to observe is that the CEO never actually lied. She simply withheld information and allowed her executives to draw their own conclusions. But adherence to literal truth doesn’t let her off the hook. Indeed, some of the most effective lies are those that mislead without openly departing from the facts.
So was her deception justifiable? Perhaps.
In a corporate culture, it’s often difficult to tell who the sincere team players are and who are the artful opportunists playing whatever part they believe will advance their own position. A good leader knows that a willingness to fail is critical to a mindset of success, and honest, thoughtful criticism is an essential quality in an adviser.
Ironically, it’s arguable that the CEO needed to resort to subterfuge to get to the truth, weeding out those executives likely to tell her only what they thought she wanted to hear. As it turned out, only one member of her team showed himself trustworthy enough to deserve the job.
Perhaps there is another benefit to her pretense. In the process, she may have taught her team a few lessons: Don’t try to deceive me. Don’t try to game the system. Don’t give me the answer you think I want; tell me the truth.
Rabbi Yonason Goldson works with business leaders to build a culture of ethics, setting higher standards to limit liability while earning loyalty and trust. He’s host of the weekly podcast Grappling with the Gray and author of “Grappling with the Gray: An Ethical Handbook for Personal Happiness and Business Prosperity,” from which this article is taken. Visit him at ethicalimperatives.com.