Board dynamics that could suppress contrarian advice

April 10, 2015

Four years ago, on the sesquicentennial of the first shots fired in the Civil War, we cited a piece from The Wall Street Journal that described how the dynamics of General Lee’s staff undermined the accomplished leader, who, at Gettysburg, failed to sense his team’s growing doubts.

The lesson remains relevant for entrepreneurs so we revisit it this week – the sesquicentennial of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse.

Lee’s generals knew that modern weapons and a determined enemy would turn the charge into a disaster.  But who among them would step forward to question the supremely confident general known as the “marble man”?  Lee would have been surprised to discover that his generals had doubts, because he considered himself open to their opinions. But his own stature and idea of himself created a barrier that only the trauma of failure could overcome.

It’s easy to imagine (Lee’s) staff struggling to effectively press their contrarian advice.  Any number of factors could cause one not to risk a career “Pickett’s Charge”:  the leader’s force of personality, the high stakes involved, the constrictions of time, the subtle team dynamics of consensus building, or even an over-reliance on formal procedures.  And what’s true for a strong general is true elsewhere – including CEOs and their boards of directors.

Owners of private companies get to pick both their investors and their board members, and therefore have an opportunity to create an environment of mutual accountability in which team members trust and challenge each other.

Entrepreneurs are almost always surprised how much value a good board can bring to their companies.  In our experience, boards work best when members’ informal modus operandi animate the formal framework of decision-making and the relationships strong enough to foster open dissent and compensate for the all-too-human tendency to learn only after it’s too late.

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