Getting Truth to Speak to Power

I met a man from another part of the world.  He leads an executive education function and works with senior business leaders.  He told me an important story.  The story makes a point about corporate life that is essential to success but that is hard to understand if we make normal assumptions.

In the culture of their country there is an extreme emphasis on hierarchy and seniority.  There are strong norms to defer.  The result is that someone such as a CEO, may get little honest feedback, and CEO’s blind spots may become a growing problem in the organization.  Some people refer to this process as the inability of truth to speak to power.

The man I was talking with described working with a CEO.  He spent a very long period preparing the CEO’s direct reports to share key truths with the CEO.  He taught them that it was important to be simultaneously respectful and honest.  The direct reports were fearful but committed.  In the first hour and a half their meeting, the CEO was uncomfortable and so was everyone else.

The man who was telling me the story described his anxiety.  In his country, a man as powerful as the CEO could destroy this man’s organization and career.  Thankfully in the last half hour there was a major change.  The CEO began to see the value in what was taking place and he opened up.  There was a major and lasting change in that organization.

What I find interesting is that people at the top of that organization were operating according to the normal assumptions of hierarchy and authority.  When those assumptions are operating people often default to self-interest and their behavior becomes governed by fear.   When this happens, which is often, truth cannot speak to power and the organization performs below its potential.  This is a common pattern that can be found in organizations across the globe.

To increase the performance of the organization, assumptions of both the direct reports and the CEO have to be transformed.  The assumptions of hierarchy and authority have to change.  Fear has to turn to confidence so that speaking the truth is more important than ego protection.  This requires a transformation in the assumptions regarding relationships.  When such a transformation occurs, authentic conversation becomes possible.  When conversation is authentic, the rate of collective learning accelerates and the probability of organizational adaptation and success increases.

Transforming assumptions or mindsets is a leadership challenge.  Yet in cases such as this one there is no formal leader available to pursue it.  A capable person from the outside is needed to lead the company long enough to facilitate the change.  The word capable suggests something more important than skill.

Note the amount of risk that the external person felt he had to take to do what the senior leaders needed.  To transform the fears of the direct reports and the CEOs, the outsider had to have more than change skills.  The outsider had to bring the virtue of courage to the fears of the senior people.  But why would an outsider actually risk his career to help the organization?  Many outside consults are more than willing to go through the motions, making normal contributions and collecting normal pay checks.

The only answer I know is purpose and integrity.  The outsider could lead the company because he was committed to raising people to higher purpose and he was willing to put the common good ahead of his own good.  I often refer to this as; “Caring enough to die for the company that would kill you for caring.”

In short, the above man provided real leadership.  He transformed the implicit conflict into creative cooperation and the collective began to adapt and perform at a higher level.



  • How can an outsider lead a company?
  • What does this mean: “Caring enough to die for the company that would kill you for caring?”
  • Have you ever seen this phenomenon and what does it have to do with cultural change?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?





2 comments on “Getting Truth to Speak to Power

  1. Taking the questions in a slightly different order: What does this mean: “Caring enough to die for the company that would kill you for caring?” Have you ever seen this phenomenon and what does it have to do with cultural change? How can an outsider lead a company?

    Caring enough to die for the company that would kill you….means your purpose, bias for action aligned to the higher cause of your organization, and acceptance that you won’t be “liked,” transcends your need for reward. Yes, I’ve seen it in the federal government, especially in extremely insular organizations who only get glimpses of the outside world through behaviors introduced by “invaders” who the organization labels as, “mid-career hires.” They say once we label something we never see it again so hence, a possible source for the behavior. It’s as if the label encapsulates all those who fit it along with the ideas that would corrupt and threaten the organization’s way of doing things, its culture.

    If an outsider is going to have any impact on an organization, they need to recognize the inherent flaw in the phrase, “Speak truth to power.” Once again, we’ve labeled something and tend not to ever see it again. It’s now been encapsulated as a special event and as such, sub-consciously, lowers our expectations for occurrence. The real leader recognizes THE POWER IN TRUTH and it informs and governs all their communication. Just like when the shoe fits the foot is forgotten, so too with truth. There’s never a time when a leader is NOT communicating with it and it’s the norm requiring no label.

    1. I am deeply impressed by your insights. I agree about lowering expectations through labeling. Leadership is about recreating a living dialog that gives rise to a living culture.

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