It was one of those moments that galvanizes learning in a young leader. My battalion commander – a dynamic officer who would one day wear the three stars of a lieutenant general on his collar – was explaining his supply chain philosophy to me in the small room where we stored the repair parts for our maintenance facility. It was a small room, with barely enough space for what Army regulations authorized us to maintain on stock.
“If you order it,” he said to me, “then you should stock it. Forget what the regulations say. If you need it now, then you’ll need it again, eventually. That’s what I think. What do you have to say about that?”
I looked around the room, at the shelves sagging under the weight of a litany of repair parts: wheel seals, hydraulic cylinders, steering pumps, and just about anything and everything else that you can imagine. I knew what the regulations authorized, and I knew where to find the loopholes that allowed me to stock certain parts that only seemed to fail when the military supply system ran dry. But I also knew my limitations. I knew that if I did what he was suggesting, someone would eventually take me to task and I’d be held accountable for wasting government resources (aka, the mighty taxpayer dollar).
“Sir, that’s the dumbest f@#$in’ thing I’ve ever heard.”
Having those words exit my mouth was an otherworldly experience. Even though I knew they were my words, on some level I felt as if someone else had said them. Probably about the time I saw his neck turn a dark crimson, in fact. His face contorted in a way I knew instinctively wasn’t good and he took a step in my direction, only to be intercepted by my senior maintenance technician, who proceeded to calm the situation and likely save my career before it had even started.
if you’re going to tell the Truth, you’d better do it well
Speaking “truth to power” was never an issue for me. I’m not one to hold my opinion, especially when the topic is important. I did so understanding that there were often consequences to voicing my opinion, not all of those consequences being positive. I believe, as French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault stated in 1983, speaking truth to power is “a duty to improve or help other people,” an obligation that transcends “self-interest and moral apathy.” It’s also a really good way to find yourself excluded from group discussions. Not everyone appreciates the person who shows up willing to “tell it like it is.”
So, over the years I learned how to express my opinions more adeptly, to speak truth to power in ways that were less brutal and more finessed. Along the way, I found that as my skill improved, so did my ability to be heard when it mattered most. And the more I expressed my opinion, the more relative value I had to those in power. But let there be no doubt – speaking truth to power is an art form. There is a good reason why people struggle with speaking truth to power: the risks are high, and the consequences can be grave. You have to know what you’re getting into and be willing to accept what comes your way.
Check your E-Q
First, speaking truth to power works a lot better if you have a high level of emotional intelligence. Your ability to read verbal and non-verbal cues from your intended audience is absolutely essential to conveying an effective – and meaningful – message. It may also save you from Foucault’s metaphorical “death.” Second, sometimes it’s important to temper your words. That doesn’t mean you’re not speaking truth to power, just that you’re not doing so while bludgeoning someone with a 20-pound sledge hammer of brutal honesty. Third, timing is everything; offer your opinion when it will make the most difference, rather than when events have progressed to a point where your “truth” has little ability to have an impact. I once worked for a leader who implored people to share their thoughts before he made a final decision; doing so after that point only served to frustrate everyone involved. Finally, speaking truth to power works best when done with respect. If you’re truly addressing someone in a position of authority, doing so respectfully is important. If not, your “moment of truth” might be viewed as a challenge to that authority and could end any opportunity you had of making a difference.
When the proverbial rubber meets the road, the decision to speak truth to power is both deeply personal and fraught with risk. But, if you believe strongly enough in your opinion, you have a moral obligation to speak your truth regardless of the consequences. What you don’t want is to be forever plagued with the question, “Why didn’t you speak up?”