What I Learned About Leadership Listening to the Nixon Tapes

Donald Miller

Here in DC, the local C-Span radio station has been playing the Nixon tapes in the evenings. I often drive to Alexandria in the evening to let my dog swim and spend some time by the river so I get about a half hour to listen. Then, recently, I decided to listen to the ones available online. Recipients of his calls ranged from Billy Graham to Henry Kissinger. And they’re fascinating. When else will we be able to hear a sitting President talking candidly, having forgotten he was being recorded?

Anyway, what I learned first and foremost from the tapes was this: It’s dangerous to surround yourself with people who are kissing your butt. I was amazed at how many people would sit and praise the President’s speech or policy or whatever and the President simply soaked it up without being called out on potential landmines.

Of course, few people alive get more criticism than the President, so it’s not like he’s hearing oppositional positions. But I found it interesting the culture he surrounded himself with was one of mostly praise. There’s no question every President has to work not to intimidate the people around them in an effort to hear the truth. Nixon didn’t seem to do a great job with this.

There’s a point in every leader’s life when they realize their legacy depends on them letting go of their egos and taking the opinions of their opposition seriously.

That’s the problem with forcing your way and surrounding yourself with people who are afraid of you. You simply don’t get the truth.

So, the key for the rest of us is to create a culture around ourselves in which people tell the trusted truth. I like that phrase “trusted truth” because it weeds out those who have their own agendas. We really want to surround ourselves with people who care more about our collective mission than they do about either their or our egos.

And that’s a tough balance. It requires some intuition.

Here are two simple things I’ll apply to my career after listening to President Nixon:

1. I won’t surround myself with too many people who are trying to compete with me.

There’s nothing wrong with competitive people. I love them, in fact. That said, if somebody is working for me and I sense they need to run their own show, it might be time to launch them rather than have them work on my team. Often they’re caught between a sincere calling and a fear to launch into that life themselves. But that place “in between” doesn’t help anybody. Sometimes, the way to make the whole situation work is to equip them to launch something themselves then provide lots of assistance and security until they’re off the ground. You’d hope they’d have the courage to ask you for help, but often that’s simply too intimidating of a position and you have to help them through that process, allowing them to keep their integrity and live into their calling.

2. I won’t surround myself with people who won’t tell me when when my fly is down.

The folks who work for me, then, are able to tell me when I’m being an idiot or making stupid decisions without making me feel like they have an ulterior motive. I need people who are going to be critical but are able to do so without thinking of their or my ego. It’s all about the mission.

So there’s the paradox. I doubt I’ll ever perfect it, but I would consider those two ideas as guard rails for continuing to move forward in making progress toward an altruistic mission.

*You can listen to the recorded phone calls of the President here.

Donald Miller

Donald Miller

Donald Miller has been telling his story for more than a decade, now he wants to help you tell yours. He’s helped over 1,000 companies clarify their message through the StoryBrand Workshops. For an introduction to what he’s doing now, check out the 5 Minute Marketing Makeover.