Five tips for speaking truth to power

speak the truthLeadership involves exposing people to new facets of reality and sometimes the facts are presented bluntly. Unsurprisingly, hearing the words “you’re wrong” provokes a defensive reaction.

Speaking truth to power can be dangerous, and many people have experienced the truth of the cliché shooting the messenger. Those in power can and do retaliate with anger when they’re surprised or embarrassed or contradicted.

  • Tip #1 – Express your respect. The obvious advice for presenting inconvenient truths is to express your respect for the person, their perspective, and their accomplishments. A leader respects civility and reveres candor. Be courteous and cordial. And tell the truth.

A leader need not set aside civility, courtesy, or politeness when discussing strategy. Most people (at least when rested and calm) want to know the facts of the situation. They want communications that are candid, clear, and plain.

  • Tip #2 – Ask permission to share. Because people like to feel in control, ask permission to share your perspective. “I’ve formed an opinion. Would you be interested in hearing it?”
  • Tip #3 – Unpack adjectives. Recall from Chapter 2, I suggested that adjectives can help you uncover useful nuance. Rather than saying, “You are stating goals and not strategy,” ask, “Do you think your strategy is good? (or effective, powerful, clever, nuanced).” Approach the answer with curiosity, intending to learn more rather than score points by declaring the other person’s weakness.
  • Tip #4 – Ask about assumptions. People’s plans and mental models are based upon assumptions. Those assumptions are frequently biased observations and speculations. When it is your turn to talk, you may be able to advocate for better assumptions.
  • Tip #5 – Being kind is essential, being nice is optional. This last tip is probably more of an insight and principle than a tip, yet it may help you approach powerful people more effectively. The insight is this:

Leadership is a practice of kindness, but it’s not always a practice of niceness.

Kindness is helping others by showing that you care about their well-being. Niceness is the practice of courtesy and politeness. A nice person tells others what the others want to hear. A person can be nice, but simultaneously unkind when she withholds uncomfortable truths or fails to share critical information.


.…The above is an excerpt from Chapter 13 of How to Think Strategically, available at all major booksellers. The book’s big idea is that strategic thinking is an individual competency that can be recognized and developed. As individuals steadily improve their capacity to think strategically, the organization gains potential to craft strategy that is good, powerful, effective, clever, and nuanced.

I especially enjoyed his chapter on Being an Extra-ordinary Leader. In this chapter, he espouses the same advice I recently heard from a very successful industry leader, “You must be comfortable with ambiguity to lead at a high level.” According to Githens, extra-ordinary leadership is “imperfectly seizing the unknown.” I recommend this text to anyone pursuing leadership excellence through strategy.”
― Keith Henson – customer review on Amazon


About Greg Githens

Author, How to Think Strategically (2019) Executive and leadership coach. Experience in driving change in Fortune 500 and mid-size companies through strategic initiatives and business transformation. Seminar leader and facilitator - high-impact results in crafting and delivering strategy, strategic initiatives, program management, innovation, project management, risk, and capturing customer requirements.
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1 Response to Five tips for speaking truth to power

  1. John Watson says:

    Great stuff Greg! Thank you !!!

    John Sent from iPhone


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