Too Many Yes Men Are A Problem

One of the great problems facing people in power is the propensity to surround themselves with “yes men.” Once you have money or power, it is human nature to seek adulation and reinforcement rather than criticism.

This is not unusual, it tends to be the norm. I recall my father, a dairy farmer, meeting the Commissioner of Agriculture for New York State during the Rockefeller administration. My Dad asked him a general question of what his job was like. His response in a rather off-handed manner was: “Well my real job is to do what I can to get the Governor re-elected.” It was an accurate reflection, I expect, but not what my father, a farmer, was expecting to hear.

I never forgot that story. People in power tend to put around them people who will agree with them and under any circumstances will support them. Though I know that this will upset some readers, this is what I believe to be a real weakness in our current President and his administration. If you are soft-spoken yet strong, let’s say like General Mattis, you won’t be long in your job. Better to be a vocal supporter and obliging… more like Secretary of State Pompeo. When the history books are written about the Trump administration, a lot of it will probably be about the “yes men” who got it wrong.

Lest I be criticized of being totally partisan, I would assert that the same kind of problem is what has sometimes gotten our own Governor into trouble. Some of the people closest to him who were responsible for his Upstate economic development programs are now going to jail. They wanted to please the Governor and execute his policies even if that meant stepping outside the law. It would have been better if they had stood up and said “No” more often.

The “yes man” problem is not only the province of government and politics. It happens also in business. Recently a car company executive is purported to have used company funds to throw his own opulent wedding party at a chateau near Versailles. Where were the advisors who should have said “No?”

Are there examples of doing it differently? The answer is “Yes,” you don’t always have to have “yes men” around you.

Two examples in politics come to mind. Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote a book about Lincoln titled “Team of Rivals.” President Lincoln intentionally appointed people to his cabinet who disagreed with him and didn’t like each other. One was a politician who had run against him and who had a history here in Chautauqua County as a real estate mogul with the Holland Land Company, William Seward. Lincoln made Seward Secretary of State, and he ended being one of the Presidents best advisors on politics and foreign affairs. He also maintained his interest in real estate and ultimately engineered the purchase of Alaska from Russia for a pittance.

Another President known for appointing those who opposed him was Franklin Roosevelt. After Frank Knox ran as the Republican Vice Presidential candidate in 1936, Roosevelt named him Secretary of the Navy. After defeating Wendell Willkie, a Republican, in the political campaign for President in 1940, Roosevelt appointed him as a personal overseas envoy during World War II.

In other words, strong and successful Presidents (or business executives) are not afraid of criticism, opposition or differences of opinion. They are inquisitive and welcome it. That is the way they find out what the truth is. Speaking truth to power is important.

Rolland Kidder is a Stow resident.