Candor: Powerful yet in need of protection


Candor may be one of the most powerful tools in the leadership arsenal.  How remarkable when a teenage child straight up tells you the unsolicited truth. Trust is born.  How awesome when a boss articulates his or her previously nonverbal ambivalence, and tells you in clear terms what it is they like about something you’re doing and what it is they don’t.  And how much more effective do you feel when someone who works with you actually points out something you’ve been doing that has been getting in the way of your effectiveness so that now you can be more intentional and more powerful?  There is always some risk with truth telling, because the truth is not always pleasant, and we do shoot messengers.  But there’s a big upside. 

“Big” leaders are often times seduced not to tell the truth or to be candid.  They want to look competent, and they also know that the people who depend upon them often don’t want to hear that their leader is not competent or has some serious limitation.  That’s why I was so blown away when Bill Ford Jr., chairman of the Ford Motor Company, was so very straightforward when I interviewed him on my radio program last week.  To be honest I wasn’t sure he would take the interview.  One of the questions I intended to ask would have sent a lesser man running in a different direction.  I wanted to and I did ask him: What was it like for you to step down willingly and to seek someone else to run the company?  He replied: The company needed a turnaround, and I had no experience in turnarounds, so I went out and found somebody to do it.  Real candor is like that: simple, matter-of-fact, and without a lot of varnish or bells or whistles. 

I also asked Mr. Ford about the irony that he had been ahead of his time in calling for green technology in the automobile industry, yet his company, at least so far has not been able to grab the lead and capitalize on his incredibly strong passion and leadership.  I wondered why he thought that was so.  Here’s my paraphrase or characterization: the culture ate Mr. Ford’s strategy for lunch.  He was straightforward on this topic, saying that his talk about fuel efficiency and alternative fuels had people in the industry treating him “like a Bolshevik.”  He said he just wasn’t able to overcome the bureaucratic entrenchment and the resistance to new ideas within his own culture.  He brought in an outsider, Alan Mullaly, who’s now hard at work on reforming that culture.   An existing culture — whether in a family, church, business or society — has a way of humbling those who seek to change it. 

One of the lessons I draw from this — which I discuss in the chapter of my book dedicated to inclusion — is that it is vital to protect those voices that challenge the culture and system.  When someone as huge as Bill Ford, chairman and CEO, finds himself checked by the system, how much more is that the case for regular folks who are working to bring a new viewpoint or necessary change?  How open are you to new ideas?  And do you look for ways to be an ally to those who are bringing change or at least carry fresh but challenging ideas? 

Express and appreciate candor, and generate openness to new ideas, in order to: 

Lead with your best self,