As a CEO, do you ever get sick of sycophants telling you what they think you want to hear rather than the truth?

The trouble is, if you’re powerful, the less powerful will always try to please you. And it feels so great to be told you’re fantastic, you’re unbeatable, you can do no wrong, that it’s tempting to just bask in the glory.

But unless you encourage those around you to tell you the truth even when it’s painful, you won’t get the full and honest picture you need in order to steer the organisation in the best direction.

As Benjamin Franklin said, “if we all think alike, no one is thinking”.

One historical leader who knew this was an early King of England called Canute.

You may have heard the story of how Canute set up his throne on a beach and commanded the tide to turn back – and of course, it didn’t.

It’s often recounted as a tale of a ruler who believed his own publicity, and let his vanity get the better of him.

But the truth is more subtle.

Canute’s courtiers told him he could do absolutely anything.


“Absolutely, Sire.”

“So if I commanded the waves of the sea to turn back, they would?”

“Like a shot, Sire”.

“That’s ridiculous.”

“But you’re the King, Sire! Your mightiness has no bounds!”

“OK, let’s run a little test. Set my throne up on the beach and we’ll see what happens”.

So they did. And what happened, of course, was that Canute commanded the waves to turn back, and they wouldn’t. And Canute was proved not vain, but wise. According to the historian Henry of Huntingdon who recorded the story in the 12th Century, the King said:

“Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws”.

He then removed his crown, hung it from a crucifix and never wore it again in honour of Almighty God.

You can be pretty sure that from that day on, Canute’s courtiers only gave him good advice, rooted in evidence.

But what can a modern CEO do to make sure s/he is not in the middle of a Fake Omnipotence Bubble?

Well, one solution is to hire a media trainer.

Contrary to popular belief, these people are not there to teach CEOs to lie convincingly.

They are there to tell leaders the unvarnished truth.

First, they inform clients about how they and their organisations are perceived by the woman and man in the street, and by the media.

Then they identify the awkward questions that need honest answers.

Sometimes the answer will involve a policy change or the admission that something went wrong.

Then the trainer will help the client craft an honest and effective answer.

Finally, they will practise delivering it in a variety of settings.

So take off that crown and hang it up.

You’re still the boss, but truth is always the higher power.