How Character-based Leaders Speak Truth to Power

This week was interesting as 3 Corporate Leaders resigned from President Trumps Council over Charlottesville. They have been heralded as ‘heroes’. However I see it differently. To me this raises the question of ‘speaking truth to power”.

What is Speaking Truth to Power?

Only this week I was asked “what do you mean when you say speaking truth to power?” Let me give my definition:

Speaking truth to power as taking a stand against something you know or believe to be wrong by telling those in authority that it is wrong and calling them to account.

The CEO’s who resigned did not ‘speak truth to power’. By resigning they may have disassociated themselves with President Trumps comments, but that is not the same as ‘calling him on them’ and telling him why they think he needed to say more. Whatever side of the political line you are on Trump is the President and all President’s need strong advisors around them, those who are themselves leaders, and will tell them the truth. It’s especially true in Government because a National leader has the ability to impact so many people’s lives.

So was it heroic to resign? One of the CEO’s stated:

“I resigned to call attention to the serious harm our divided political climate is causing to critical issues…,”

Businessman Superhero With Sunset In City

This may be interpreted by some as heroic, taking a stand. I have a different view. These CEO’s were in positions of influence. Purposed leaders use their influence for the greater good. Remaining as an advisor but telling President Trump frankly their views may have caused him to reflect. At the least they would have shown him their line in the sand, and, gained his respect for having the guts to take a stand to his face. After all, one of the things we know about this US President is that he appreciates displays of strength.

What can we learn from this?

Count the cost

Becoming a leader is exciting. The possibility of more pay, more interesting work etc. However, how many of us think about that responsibility from the perspective of character. Speaking Truth to Power is a practice of character-based leaders. Those who are willing to use their influence to speak up for what is right on behalf of those who have no voice. There is much personal risk n speaking truth to power. You risk losing your job, your credibility and even friends. If you are are aspiring to become a leader these are some of the things you should think about.

Feel the fear and do it anyway

Being a leader means you often have to stand apart from the crowd. Given the consequences it’s a frightening thing. However, the lack of pace when you don’t speak up can be worse. One of my first decisions to ‘stand up’ was working as a tutor for a Private University’s in the U.K. I had to mark student papers and was told if I continued to provide extensive feedback my marking quota would not be met. To meet the quota meant giving little or no commentary. I spoke to the Director . I wasn’t confident and it was more of a plea than drawing a line in the sand. But the Director eventually changed the daily quota slightly. It wasn’t a magnificent effort and I was scared that I might not complete probation but I did it anyway.

Know you values

Speaking truth to power requires conviction. Conviction comes from knowing your values. If we are truly living our values they guide our actions. They also guide how we interact with others. We need to be clear about our boundaries and what is/is not acceptable behaviour. So what are your values, can you articulate them clearly. Do you strive to put them into practice daily?

I would love to hear your stories about where you have spoken truth to power, or if you are still struggling with it, your thoughts on how to overcome that fear.

One final thought

Clover, a friend and reader left a comment below  that was so important I had to add it!

A fourth element of how character-based leaders speak truth to power is to:

Speak the truth in Love

The essence of ‘speaking truth to power’ is to admonish someone. The dictionary definition of this is to warn or some say correct.  But it’s more than that it’s to speak to universal principles, in a world where relativism is the order of the day, and hold another accountable  because you want the best for them and others in the situation. So

Our heart motivation for speaking truth to power, is not simply correction or warning but love.

So we must check our heart motivation in speaking truth to power. If  it’s to be religious (just to be right), or to humiliate the person then we cannot expect them to receive it well, let alone change.  Even when we speak the truth in love they may still not receive it, nor change but we will find peace.  Another reason that we must check our heart motivation is because if it is love then the fear of ‘speaking truth to power’ decreases because “Perfect Love casts out fear”.

4 thoughts on “How Character-based Leaders Speak Truth to Power

  1. I appreciate your presenting your views on this topic and opening it for discussion. I remember my father (and his father also) quoting advice from Shakespeare’s Polonius in Hamlet: “This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.” And I also am reminded of the Apostle Paul’s challenge to “Speak the truth in love.” It is very easy to shade or minimize either the truth, perhaps to protect someone’s feelings, or love itself, in the heat of making a point. Staying clear and bold in both areas is, indeed, a challenge. It goes without saying that wanting to please God before all else will sometimes have us saying things that are not always pleasing to people…at least not at first. but that’s okay. In the work arena, almost anybody can be taught to do a job. But forthrightness, honesty and integrity, and character are not so easy to teach! Employees, supervisors, managers, etc… NEED people with that stuff! Feel free to share, if you want… in order to open up the conversation.

    1. Clover,
      thank you for sharing your thoughts. You are so right. One could add a fourth point on “How” we speak truth to power. In Love, if we are in a position where we can speak to power our ‘influence’ will only come if it’s done from the right heart motivation, i.e. in love, even if we don’t say it ‘right’. You are so right that in the Corporate and Government spheres we need people with “that stuff”. I reminded of Proverbs 16:13-23 – this is the New Living Translation:
      “13 The king is pleased with words from righteous lips; he loves those who speak honestly. 14 The anger of the king is a deadly threat; the wise will try to appease it. 15 When the king smiles, there is life; his favor refreshes like a spring rain.”

  2. Good, thought-provoking article Felicia. When we are called to leadership, whether it. Is a leader in our home or a top government/corporate official, we muse first know ourselves. We must have core values developed that reveal integrity and fortitude to stand up to those values. If we continue to waffle on what we stand for (or think we stand for), do we really stand for anything?
    There are those who will laud these “advisors” as leaders and heros; however, their actions show me they are not leaders, but followers afraid to stand up for goodness, mercy and righteousness.
    This drives home the point that we must continue to pray for our leaders in government and all who have influence in decisions that affect all citizens of a country. Thanks again.

  3. Destiny Quest, so true ‘we must know what we stand for or we stand for nothing’ or will tolerate anything!
    Indeed, now more than ever we must pray for leaders, in our homes, schools, churches and especially our Governments.

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