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How “suffering fools” is a good thing for leaders

6 min read


Early in my corporate career, when I was a brand assistant at Procter & Gamble, my brand manager sat me down to give some feedback.

A cross-functional team member had approached him and said I didn’t value this person’s opinion during our team meetings. When my brand manager asked me about it, I said, “You’re right. I don’t. He doesn’t have any value to add, so why should I value his opinion?” My brand manager burst out laughing. “You don’t suffer fools easily, do you?” “You’re right!” I said with a hint of pride in my voice.

For a long time I carried that badge proudly, even patting myself on the back for being a “good judge of talent.” Now that a lot of my executive coaching clients come to me to learn about how to better develop and engage talent, I tell them they need to learn how to “suffer fools.”

According to a recent employee-engagement survey by Towers Watson, “feeling valued” is a key driver of sustainable engagement, as noted at Harvard Business Review online by Tony Schwartz. “No single behavior more viscerally and reliably influences the quality of people’s energy than feeling valued and appreciated by their supervisor,” he wrote. Companies at the highest levels of sustainable engagement outperform those at the lowest by 3 to 1 in terms of profit margins.

The window in our minds

Imagine we are at the Louvre in Paris. We are there to see Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.” We’re excited to finally see it because we’ve heard so much about it. When we get there, we’re rather disappointed. All we see is a bunch of shades of dark brown mixed with gray. We walk off, dismissing “Mona Lisa” as just one of those over-hyped paintings. In fact, we know better now not to trust anyone who tell us how great any painting really is. What just happened?

What happened is our normal way of evaluating people or situations:

  1. We trust what we see.
  2. We assume we’re seeing the complete picture.
  3. We don’t know that we are seeing the picture through a small window.
  4. We don’t know that we created the small window ourselves.

You see, we saw “Mona Lisa” through a small window that happened to be placed in the middle of the painting above her hands. So we saw only the dark brown and gray. We created that window without even knowing it.

Here’s the neuroscience of why we do this. Our brains need to “make sense of” and categorize incoming information to process it. Our brains must decide which information is important and which is not to avoid the paralysis of data overload. So, our brains limit the information we pay attention to by creating what I’m referring to as a “window.” This is very useful in us leading productive lives. But there’s a downside.

In our 24/7, high-stress lives, we don’t realize that we’re seeing people and situations through our own unique window. As stress hormones constantly release cortisol, we don’t realize that the window gets smaller and smaller as our “fight or flight” impulses are triggered. This is entirely biological and happens automatically as part of our survival mechanism. Faced with constant stress, our focus narrows, our pupils literally dilate (the window becomes smaller) and all our resources are made available for survival rather than seeing the full picture. After all, for our ancestors to survive, appreciating the beauty of the sunset was secondary when we had a lion chasing us.

The window of our leadership

What does this have to do with leadership? We evaluate situations and people through an ever-narrowing window of what’s immediately important for our survival, not understanding that our physical survival is really not under threat. In today’s corporate jungle, what we perceive as under threat is our self-image (achiever, performer, survivor of corporate layoffs, etc.)

So, as a young assistant brand manager, eager to get promoted and move ahead, I had no time for people who I believed had no value to add. I would quickly evaluate a person through the window of my needs to determine how useful they could be against pre-set criteria I had created. If I saw brown and gray, I would quickly dismiss them and move on. Of course, this would leave people feeling devalued. They were.

Here’s what I’ve discovered. Every single person is a “Mona Lisa” if we can widen the window through which we see them. Every single person has contributions to make and value to add. It may not be in exactly the areas we were expecting. It may not be in the areas we ourselves value.

Here’s one of my favorite quotes from Martin Luther King Jr.: “[E]verybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. … You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.”

If we dismiss others, we limit the opportunity we have to widen the window and discover the “Mona Lisa” that is within them; we also limit our own potential to be great leaders. The more we practice widening the window, the better our ability to see the complete picture, to inspire unexpected contributions from each member of our team.

Here are five questions to ask ourselves as leaders when we are about to dismiss a person:

  1. How can I widen the window for myself in this moment?
  2. What are contributions this person has already made?
  3. What strengths have they demonstrated through these contributions?
  4. What are situations where this person “comes alive”?
  5. How can I help this person contribute, or how do I get out of their way?

As an ongoing leadership practice, mindfulness is a great way to catch ourselves in the act of dismissing a person, in overall lowering our stress levels so our windows can stay wider, and in examining our unique window through which we see the world. For many of my executive coaching clients, doing so has made a tremendous impact in their leadership.

Henna Inam is CEO of Transformational Leadership, a company focused on helping women achieve their potential to be transformational leaders. As a former C-suite executive with Fortune 500 companies, her passion is to help leaders be successful, deeply engaged and create organizations that drive breakthroughs in innovation, growth and engagement. Connect @hennainam on Twitter and at her blog.