Speaking of Leadership – Speak Your Words

That moment you realize that the words coming out of your mouth belong to someone else.

I remember one of those moments. I sat across a table from the new CEO. Just the two of us. His question felt like a fist to my stomach.

“What do you think about the new team?”

To be honest I don’t even remember all the details of the conversation. I just remember I didn’t speak the truth. Oh, I tried to toss out a few subtle hints but in the end, I bailed and told him what I thought he wanted to hear. I spoke his words, not mine.

This was mostly because I didn’t trust him. Many of new the team members were people he had handpicked and that worked with him at his prior companies. To say anything critical seemed dangerous.

It was like watching the scene from a movie where you desperately want the main character to speak the words that release the tension but he holds back at the critical moment. The problems get worse, the girl leaves and the plot thickens until the obligatory crisis arrives and all is revealed.

Pass the popcorn.

As soon as he left the room I stared aimlessly at my computer screen replaying the conversation in my head a hundred times. I floated between anger and sadness with each new screening.

Yes, the lack of trust and fear of losing my job played their part but if I wasn’t going to fit with the new team and the decidedly alpha-male culture then the outcome was somewhat inevitable. (And it was.) So why not speak the truth? At least I might have spared myself another six months of trying to break into an inner circle that I didn’t really want to join.

The effort to salvage my difficult situation with flattering words provided the illusion of safety but it damaged my self-esteem. Perhaps had I chosen this course of action thoughtfully it would have been different but in this case, I just panicked. That’s what bugged me the most. At the critical moment, I chose safety over integrity.

In the end, I’m pretty sure he knew I was hiding my real opinion. The facade only made things worse by further damaging our relationship. Truth is I really didn’t have anything to lose by being honest.

It was a valuable lesson.

Maybe you’ve been there at some point in your leadership journey. For that matter, maybe you’ve been there in other areas of your life. It may feel less risky to avoid the discomfort that might come from exposing your true feelings but this choice is not without consequences.

You miss out on the self-confidence and inner strength that one develops through showing up and saying what needs to be said. The rest of us miss out on hearing your unique message and point of view. In the end, you risk losing respect for yourself and the respect of others.

It’s also possible that the terrible outcome you fear is just a story you’ve imagined. The actual outcome may be very different but you won’t know unless you push through.

Yes, you can select your words carefully.

Yes, you can probe for clarity.

Yes, you can examine your motives.

Yes, you can consider the risks.

Yes, you can choose to wait.

Just don’t get in the habit of eating your words.

Leaders are routinely presented with hard questions that deserve an honest and authentic answer.

How would you rate my performance?

What happens if this plan fails?

Why did we choose this direction?

When are things going to change?

What would you do in this situation?

It’s tempting to dance around the real answers, replace your opinion with the company line or soften the message. I think that’s doing people a disservice. It’s you they are learning to trust, or not. It’s you they are counting on the be truthful.

Don’t let fear keep you from sharing your opinion and giving your input to decisions. This doesn’t serve you or the team. You have a unique perspective and experience. We need to hear what you are thinking.

If you want to contribute to change, to growth and to a better future then speak your words. If you want to learn, expand your thinking and build your confidence then speak your words.

Those in power need to know that others will stand up and say what needs to be said. Someone who will expose the elephant in the room and talk about the things that have been overlooked and avoided.

The world needs more people who are active participants in the creative process. People who are willing to lean into the tension and add their words to the story.

When the opportunity comes your way, consider the full weight of the decision and choose carefully. Don’t get caught up in the messages in your head. Seek the courage to speak your words.

4 comments

  1. Scott, Thank you so much for your shared insights!! I really needed to hear this from you today. I have a big meeting coming up with my boss and there will be difficult conversation. But I will need to speak the truth.
    Dee

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  2. I really enjoyed this article and understand the importance of the topic. Throughout my life and career, I’ve placed a priority on integrity and saying what I truly believe. In a recent high tension work situation, I informed an executive with whom I’ve collaborated with for nearly a decade, that I was disappointed and felt that my team and I had been blatantly disrespected when trying to problem-solve with him and his organization. He asked what was the problem, I informed him, and he responded by dismissing and deflecting my concerns. Sadly, I had to inform him that the relationship is severely fractured both personally and professionally. Overall, the concerns have not been addressed, but since I spoke openly and honestly, I am no longer psychologically stressed or feeling burdened.

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  3. Great article. I could personally relate. When I started in HR 30 years ago, these were hard conversations to have with senior leadership and CEO’s. As my career progressed, I realized that as a senior HR leader, I had to be honest and forthcoming when asked by senior leaders or my CEO what I thought of their team members. This included my peers at the executive level. My follow up question was alway, so what are “we” going to do about your or my concerns about this person’s actions or behaviors.This also put the CEO and/or manager on the spot as well. This then started a dialog where we started openly discussing how HR and the manager/CEO could address thier concerns and we as a leadership team would be taking action to facility a change.

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