Speaking Truth to Power: A White Paper
Old Tales and New of Leadership, Organizational Culture, and
By James O'Toole
The truth that makes men free is for the
the truth which men prefer not to hear.
--Herbert Agar, A Time for Greatness (1942)
Speaking truth to power is perhaps the oldest and, certainly,
one of the most difficult of ethical challenges because to do
so entails personal danger. From the day humans descended from
our ape-like ancestors until only very recently, tribal leaders,
clan elders, kings, and just plain bosses were men who ruled
by force. To question their decisions was to risk death.
A major theme running through Sophocles' fourth-century B.C.
play Antigone is the perils of speaking truth to power.
Indeed, the play is the source of the modern cliché,
"shooting the messenger." Early in the action, straws
are drawn among King Creon's guards to choose the unlucky one
who must tell his majesty that his niece, and soon to be daughter-in-law,
Antigone, not only has defied a recent edict he has proclaimed,
but that the populace is rallying to her support. The losing
guard swallows hard, recognizing that "nobody likes the
bringer of bad news." Least of all Creon, who greets the
news by first questioning the guard's loyalty and, then, in
a terrifying display of what the Greeks called hubris (the arrogance
of power), he proclaims that, because he's king, the god's are
on his side. Creon refuses to listen to Antigone's reasons
for defying his edict-she is a woman, after all, and that would
be too much of a blow to his male ego-and he refuses to hear
what his people have to say, believing that to listen to them
would be taken as a sign of weakness and, hence, a threat to
Finally, Creon's son, Haemon, musters the courage to tell his
father that "Your presence frightens any common man from
saying things you would not care to hear." Haemon tells
Then do not have one mind, and one alone
that only your opinion can be right.
Whoever thinks that he alone is wise,
his eloquence, his mind, above the rest,
come the unfolding, shows his emptiness.
A man, though wise, should never be ashamed
of learning more, and must unbend his mind.
Have you not seen the trees beside the torrent,
the ones that bend them saving every leaf,
while the resistant perish root and branch?
And so the ship that will not slacken sail,
the sheet drawn tight, unyielding, overturns,
She ends the voyage with her keel on top.
No, yield your wrath, allow a change of stand.
Young as I am, if I may give advice,
I'd say it would be best if men were born
perfect in wisdom, but failing this
(which often fails) it can be no dishonor
to learn from others when they speak good sense.
But Creon stubbornly refuses to listen and, in the end, brings
death to his family, ruin on himself, and destruction to his
In the play, both the messenger and the king face tough ethical
choices: the guard is likely to be killed if he speaks truth
to power; and, as the king sees it, he must either execute his
son's fiancé or undermine his authority to govern. Sophocles
implies that the latter choice is both the harder and more morally
significant. He puts one moral of the story in the mouth of
the messenger: "To reject good counsel is a crime,"
and another is spoken by a blind "seer": "Stubbornness
and stupidity are twins." The play thus is a reminder to
leaders that their ethical duty is to create what, in a modern
organizational context, Warren Bennis calls a "culture
of candor." The ancient Greeks had a word for culture:
ethos. Often translated as "character," significantly,
it also is the root of the Modern English word "ethics."
I first read Antigone in 1973 and, in the decade that followed,
was amazed to find that the ethical issues raised by Sophocles
in the context of an ancient monarchy were present in many of
the modern corporations where I was doing research and consulting.
Here are two contrasting examples of what I observed:
In 1982, I was invited by the Cowles Media Corporation (owners
of the Minneapolis Star and Tribune) to meet with their
top executives to discuss their corporate culture. I could see
why they wanted help: After having lost the magazines Look
in the 1960s and Harper's in the 1970s (the first went
belly up, the second literally had to be given away), the down-in-the-dumps
corporation subsequently had seen their net income fall from
$12.2 to $0.7 million between 1979 and 1982. I started the process
by asking the group for a few short, descriptive phrases that
would best describe the culture of the company. Silence. I asked
again. More silence. Finally, I was passed an unsigned note
that read "Dummy, can't you see that we can't speak our
minds? Ask for our input anonymously, in writing." I did
so, and for the next two hours I would ask them a question about
their culture, they would write down their answers; then I would
collect them and read the responses back to the group. At the
end of this wearying experience (one I viewed then, and now,
as a failure on my part), several executives came up to tell
me in private to say that the meeting was the best they had
had since John Cowles, Jr., had assumed leadership of the corporation!
Within a year of the meeting, John Cowles fired several of those
managers for disloyalty (that is, for having spoken truth to
power) and several others resigned in protest over one or another
of his decisions. Shortly thereafter, the Cowles family fired
The second story is about the then-startup Federal Express Corporation.
In the late 1970s, I addressed some thirty of the corporation's
top managers on the subject of worker productivity. I had gotten
no more than ten minutes into my talk when a young manager interrupted
me and addressed a challenge to his colleagues: "The professor
has made an interesting point that runs counter to a major decision
top management made a couple weeks ago. I suggest we ought to
reexamine that decision now in light of what we have just learned."
To my amazement, the managers picked up the suggestion and turned
directly to a no-holds-barred debate of the issue. What was
surprising to me about the discussion was that the lower-level
managers made those at the top defend their decision. When it
became clear the policy couldn't be defended, the younger managers
asked the bosses to change it. Which they did, then and there.
This rough and tumble exchange lasted for about an hour. At
the end, they all went to lunch without a trace of hard feelings,
or a sign that anyone had won or lost face, power, or status.
Apparently, this openness and willingness to raise tough questions
and challenge accepted wisdom was part of the culture of the
firm, for I seemed to be the only one in the room who found
the exchange unusual. My feeling then, which I expressed in
a book in 1985, was that if Federal Express could retain that
rare ability to learn and to change, it was a good bet that
they would continue to be a remarkable success.
Quite apart from the ethical issues raised by these two examples,
in hindsight one can see why the Cowles organization failed
to meet the test of sustainability, and why Federal Express
went on to become one of the world's most successful corporations
in terms of anticipating and responding to technological, social,
political, economic, and competitive change. The lesson I drew
from these examples nearly three decades ago was that managers
in companies with healthy cultures were constantly willing to
rethink even their most basic assumptions through a process
of constructive dissent. And my experience over the last thirty
years confirms that companies get into moral and competitive
hot water when their leaders are unwilling to test their operating
premises about such (often taboo) subjects as (1) the nature
of the working conditions they offer employees, (2) the purposes
of their corporation, and (3) its responsibilities to various
stakeholders. The failure to openly examine such behavior-driving
assumptions leads to what commonly is called "group think,"
a state of collective denial or self-deception which often has
disastrous business and ethical consequences.
I hesitate to cite the late John Z. DeLorean as an authority
on ethical matters, but he was one of the few business leaders
to recognize the consequences of group-think. In On a Clear
Day You Can See General Motors he described what he called
a typical meeting of GM's executive committee in which then-chairman,
Richard Gerstenberg, would pontificate and vice-chairman, Richard
Terrell ("the master of the paraphrase"), would parrot
Gerstenberg: Goddamnit. We cannot afford any new models next
year because of the cost of this federally mandated equipment.
There is no goddamn money left for styling changes. That's the
biggest problem we face.
Terrell, after waiting about 10 minutes: Dick, goddamnit. We've
just got to face up to the fact that our number one problem
is the cost of this federally mandated equipment. This stuff
costs so much that we don't have any money left for styling
our new cars. That's our biggest problem.
Gerstenberg: You're goddamn right, Dick. That's a good point.
DeLorean clearly was exaggerating, but this hypothetical dialogue
is illustrative of a behavioral problem found in many organizations.
People in groups form shared ideas-"collective representations"
in the language of social anthropology-and all the forces of
the group conspire to protect those notions, no matter how inaccurate
or outmoded they may be. For example, as the Japanese began
to win a share of the U.S. auto market in the late 70s, DeLoren
portrayed GM's top managers in Detroit looking down from their
fourteenth-floor executive suite onto the enormous company parking
lot below and saying something like, "Look at all those
big cars! Who says Americans want small ones?" Ditto GM's
leaders' self-defeating collective representations about product
If only the pattern were confined to the auto industry. But
experience shows that all managers commonly hold shared assumptions
about the sources of innovation, motivation, productivity, product
quality, and profitability in their organizations, and those
untested assumptions drive their behavior, for good or ill.
Significantly, the more basic-and therefore the more potent-the
assumption the less likely it is to be examined. From what I
have been told, the Altria company has squeaky-clean governance
procedures, thanks to their tough internal auditing and control
processes, but it is doubtful that the company's managers could
raise the question of the basic morality of its cigarette business.
Similarly, business professors in large research universities
resist examining a fundamental premise of their enterprise that
publishing in "A" journals is the sole measure of
scholarly excellence. All organizations-nations, colleges, businesses,
and families--hold on to such fundamental and unexamined myths.
While such shared values and assumptions are necessary to hold
a group together, if the glue that binds them is, in fact, toxic,
it can result in organizational morbidity. That's why managers
in companies with healthy cultures continually challenge old
assumptions, rethink basic premises, question, revise, and unlearn
An often told story about Motorola during its hey-day in the
1980s concerned a young middle manager who approached then-CEO
Robert Galvin: "Bob, I heard that point you made this morning,
and I think you are dead wrong. I'm going to prove it. I'm going
to shoot you down." The young man stormed off and Galvin,
beaming proudly, turned to a shocked companion and said "That's
how we've overcome Texas Instruments' lead in semi-conductors."
Moreover, at Motorola during that timeframe there were no rewards
for those who supported the status quo: managers got ahead only
by challenging existing assumptions and by proving the fact
when they detected imperial nakedness. Galvin would explain
to anyone who would listen that he was far from the smartest
person at Motorola, and that the success the company was due
to the fact that he had surrounded himself with managers more
talented than he was. And then he listened to them. Galvin not
only made it clear that candor was valued, it was rewarded even
if that entailed receiving information he personally found unpleasant.
In fact, Galvin put into place a process by which the fundamental
assumptions of the company where surfaced, and then challenged.
Unfortunately, over subsequent decades the company would lose
those good habits.
But it seems possible to institutionalize what Galvin once did
so naturally. When Verne Morland was an executive at NCR in
the 1980s he suggested that all companies could benefit from
hiring a corporate "fool." Like Lear's Fool in Shakespeare's
eponymous play, the modern organizational equivalent would be
a person licensed "To challenge by jest and conundrum all
that is sacred and all that the savants have proved to be true
and immutable." While this corporate contrarian need not
dress in motley, spangles, and bells, the fool nonetheless would
be obligated to 'stir up controversy, respect no authority,
and resist pressures to engage in detailed analyses."
In keeping with William James's observation that "genius
little more than the facility of perceiving in an unhabitual
way," consultant Nancy Reeves prophetically suggested in
the 1980s that speaking truth to power might be a more natural
role for women than for men to play because the former "have
been outside the status quo ante, and are free to marshal historic
exclusions for positive ends...women have not learned, and therefore
do not have to unlearn, principles no longer pertinent
might be the utterers of today's imperative blasphemies."
Twenty years later, in the great tradition of Antigone, Enron's
Sherron Watkins, WorldCom's Cynthia Cooper, and the FBI's Coleen
Rowley, found themselves on the cover of Time magazine
as 2002 Persons of the Year. Although Time incorrectly
accused these three brave women of whistle blowing, in fact,
they had received their due public recognition for their willingness
to speak truth to power. Each had courageously gone to the men
at the top of their respective organizations with news those
leaders didn't want to hear.
I use the word courageous advisedly. Too many business leaders
today are like King Creon. While the dangers posed to modern
messengers are no longer physical, thanks to the much-publicized
behavior of imperial CEOs in the 1990s, a cultural expectation
has been created that leaders need to be decisive, tough, take-charge
men who quickly fire those who are not "team-players."
Imagine the courage it would take to tell a Jack Welch, a Scott
McNeely, an Andy Grove, or a Larry Ellison news he didn't want
to hear? Even in a book by fawning admirers, Jack Welch came
across as a modern-day Attila when GE managers dared to question
him. Dissenters were berated, insulted, and abused: "According
to former employees, Welch conducts meetings so aggressively
that people tremble. He attacks almost physically with his intellect-criticizing,
demeaning, ridiculing, humiliating." One humiliated former
GE-executive who had been publicly dressed down by Welch for
daring to question his boss admitted to the moderator of an
Aspen Institute seminar in the early 1990s that Welch's furious
tirade "caused me to soil my pants."
Perhaps the only thing riskier than telling the boss he is wrong
is to have to admit one's own mistakes. Speaking truth to power
is a threatening exercise when it entails owning-up to serious
error. Indeed, fear of punishment by tyrannical leaders causes
many managers to become risk averse. To free his people from
such crippling fears, legendary CEO Percy Barnevik issued these
General Principals of Management Behavior when he became CEO
of ABB in the 1980s:
*To take action (and stick out one's neck) and do the right
things is obviously the best.
*To take action and do the wrong things (within reason and
a limited number of times) is second best.
*Not to take action (and lose opportunities) is the only non-acceptable
Paradoxically, the risks of speaking truth to power are particularly
acute for those in professional services firms--the very lawyers,
accountants, and consultants who are the very "gatekeepers"
charged with providing business leaders with unvarnished assessments
and warnings, and objective advice and counsel. In a nutshell,
these professionals know that the fastest way to lose clients
is to tell them news they don't want to hear. This is especially
true when the news that needs to be conveyed is that the client-CEO's
behavior is at the root of the company's problems. For example,
it takes great moral courage for a compensation consultant to
tell a CEO that he is over-paid. In a professional services
firm the penalty for losing a major client is a fate worse than
death: derailment from the partnership track. As the demise
of the Arthur Anderson accountancy demonstrated, the incentives
in most professional firms encourage people to lie to, and for,
clients. And that won't change unless the ways in which professionals
are evaluated and rewarded change.
THE LEGACY OF ENRON
In the wake of Enron and similar instances of corporate fraud
and lying uncovered over the last decade, increasing calls have
been made in this country for what the British call "transparency"--
that is, for business organizations free of the dirty little
secrets the unveiling of which would destroy trust, ruin reputations,
and wreck havoc with profits. As Warren Bennis notes, transparency
cannot be legislated. Instead, it only occurs "when an
organization creates a culture of candor, one in which followers
are free to speak truth to power and leaders are willing to
hear it." In fact, there really is no need for any secrets
in organizations beyond protecting plans for new products and
processes and other sources of competitive advantage. As another
of my colleagues, Edward Lawler, has shown, it even redounds
to the benefit of organizations to post everyone's salary. So
what needs to be done? Transparency comes down to leaders doing
several practical things: providing egalitarian access to information,
not punishing those who constructively demonstrate imperial
nakedness, not rewarding spurious loyalty, and empowering and
rewarding principled contrarians. But that is easier said than
done, as recent experience at the highest levels of government
A HIGHLY VISIBLE LESSON
As an unimpeded flow of information is the sine qua non of a
business organization's ability to meet competitive challenges,
the free flow of information is necessary for a modern democracy
to flourish. A dozen or so books written by Washington insiders
published over the last few years document the costs in terms
of careers, reputations, and even lives when America's political
leaders have been unwilling to listen to uncomfortable truths.
In State of Denial Bob Woodward cites a recent exchange
in the oval office concerning the occupation of Iraq that eerily
echoes the 1970s discussion at GM's headquarters reported by
DeLorean. According to Woodward, then-Secretary of State, Colin
Powell, tried to explain to President George W. Bush and National
Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice that a major problem in Bagdad
was that there were two chains of command, both reporting to
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld:
The president looked surprised.
"That's not right," Rice said. "That's not right."
Powell thought Rice could at times be pretty sure of herself,
but he was pretty sure he was right.
"Yes, it is," Powell insisted.
"Wait a minute," Bush interrupted, taking Rice's side.
"That doesn't sound right."
"Rice got up and went to her office to check. When she
came back, Powell thought she looked a little sheepish. "That's
right," she said.
In The One Percent Doctrine Ron Suskind describes how
the President met foreign policy challenges with "self-generated
The policy process, in fact, never changed much. Issues argued,
often vociferously, at the level of deputies and principles
rarely seemed to go upstream in their fullest form to the President's
desk; and, if they did, it was often after Bush seemed to have
already made up his mind based on what was so often cited as
his "instinct" or "gut."
In The Price of Loyalty Suskind further documents how
former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neil would often meet such
Presidential certainty with regard to economic policy. O'Neil
would present a detailed policy argument to the President who
would respond with a blank stare, saying nothing, and then moving
on to the next subject: "I wondered, from the first, if
the President didn't know the questions to ask," O'Neil
recalled, "or did he know and just not want to know the
answers?" In this and similar instances documented by other
observers, instead of asking questions to gather information,
the President kept his own counsel and made up his own mind.
Significantly, such criticisms of the way decisions are made
in the Administration are, for the most part, from non-partisan
sources. For example, conservative columnist David Brooks offers
advice on "how the next president needs to fix decision-making:"
the next president has to restore cabinet government-set
up teams of rival, as Lincoln, Eisenhower and Reagan did
president who vests power in cabinet members gives himself colleagues,
people of similar age and stature who can argue with him face
to face. By formalizing a decision-making process he balances
egotistical secretaries against each other. A Rumsfeld would
have to go to meetings and explain himself to his rivals. Entire
departments couldn't be shut out of the loop, the way Treasury
and State were.
In both the public and private sectors, the very strengths of
leaders are often also their weaknesses. Warren Bennis calls
attention to the importance of what he calls "the Wallenda
Factor," that supreme self-confidence found among most
great leaders, a belief that they not only are right, but that
they cannot fail. When the leader is, in fact, right-as Churchill
was right in the 1930s about the threat posed by the Nazis and,
hence, refused to heed the counsel of the many appeasers in
his country-such resolve and determination becomes the stuff
of legend. But when a leader is wrong, or when conditions change,
the very same trait appears as self-defeating stubbornness (witness
Creon). In this regard, Francis Bacon offered leaders sound
advice some four hundred years ago, "If a man will begin
with certainties, he will end in doubts; but if he will be content
to begin in doubts, he will end in certainties."
Clearly, the problems attendant to speaking truth to power have
been around forever, and they are unlikely to magically vanish
in the future. Nevertheless, experience shows that several things
can be done to ameliorate these problems, and that both leaders
and followers have moral obligations with regard to these actions.
RESPONSIBILITIES OF MESSENGERS
When one reports to an emperor, the temptation is to avoid bad
news. Worse, there are rewards for flatterers and those who
appeal to the vanity of the leader. Here ego is to blame not
only on the part of the listener, but on the part of the messenger,
as well. Former CIA Director, George Tenet, was basically an
honest, competent, and hard-working civil servant in the Clinton
Administration whose ego was wounded by the fact that he was
never accepted as a White House insider. As the only high-level
hold-over in the Bush Administration, Tenet was understandably
flattered when the new President's inner-circle treated him
an integral member of their team. It is easy to see how Tenet
would not want to jeopardize his status by being the skunk at
the party. Doubtless, nothing could cement his standing more
than telling the other members of the team what they wanted
to hear: Iraq would be a "slam dunk."
Paul O'Neil, in contrast, made it a habit to speak truth to
power and ultimately was fired by the Administration because
he was not seen as a "team player." Indeed, the moral
challenge O'Neil faced almost daily during his tenure in Washington
was to weigh the balance between two competing goods: the frequently
opposed organizational virtues of loyalty and truth telling.
The character trait needed to appropriately adjust that balance
is integrity. In Stephen Carter's book on the subject, the distinguished
Yale law professor lays out three requisite steps for the exercise
(1) discerning what is right and what is wrong; (2) acting
on what you have discerned, even at personal cost; (3) saying
openly that you are acting on your understanding of right
and wrong. The first criterion captures the idea of integrity
as requiring a degree of moral reflectiveness. The second brings
in the ideal of an integral person as steadfast, which includes
the sense of keeping commitments. The third reminds us that
a person of integrity is unashamed of doing the right.
However, Carter stresses that the exercise of integrity is
not as simple as one, two, three. Indeed, integrity by and of
itself is an insufficient virtue: after all, Adolf Hitler had
oodles of it. Yet, at the same time, all other virtues are insufficient
without integrity: for example, President Richard Nixon had
vision, intelligence, and courage, but those proved not be enough
without the catalyst of integrity. Moreover, integrity does
not simply entail telling the truth. Carter calls attention
to "the insufficiency of honesty," reminding us that
we also have other, often competing, responsibilities. As every
family knows, inappropriate or careless truth telling can be
hurtful, and ultimately fatal, to relationships. In sum, before
speaking truth to power can be considered virtuous, the act
must meet several criteria:
1. It has to be truthful
2. It must do no harm to innocents
3. It must not be self-interested (the benefits must go to others,
or to the organization)
4. It must be the product of moral reflection
5. The messenger must be willing to pay the price
6. It must not be done out of spite or anger.
This list is neither complete nor all-inclusive, and each of
the points requires significant elaboration. For example, in
the appendix (below) I illustrate some of the ethical complications
related to the role of anger. Those complications duly registered,
it nonetheless can be said that we all have a moral obligation
to speak truth to power when the actions of leaders are harmful
to our organization, to people inside and outside the organization,
and to the leaders themselves. But as hard as it is for messengers
to fulfill such obligations, it is more difficult for leaders
to listen to, and heed, the warnings of followers.
RESPONSIBILIITES OF LISTENERS
As the ancient example of Creon reminds us, the presence
of excessive amounts of testosterone almost always leads to
a loss of hearing. It is almost always ego-and almost always
ego of the male persuasion-that makes it futile, even dangerous,
to speak truth to power. As Warren Bennis and Daniel Goleman
leaders would do well to reflect on their own receptivity
to suggestions, alternative points of views, and others' opinions.
One motive for turning a deaf ear to what others have to say
seems to be sheer hubris: leaders who believe they are wiser
or more expert than those they lead. The literature on executive
narcissism tells us that the self-confidence executives need
can easily turn into a blind-spot, an unwillingness to turn
to others for advice. [CEO] Kevin Sharer of Amgen keeps a cautionary
portrait of General George Custer in his office to remind himself
of the dangers of overestimating his leadership ability.
That is why I believe the mantle of true greatness should be
reserved only for those leaders who possess the "feminine"
virtues of humility, inclusion, vulnerability, service to others,
and respect for people. In this regard, one could do worse than
to keep a portrait of the late President Gerald Ford as a positive
reminder of what great leadership entails. Shortly after he
died, New York Times columnist Frank Rich noted that
the former President "encouraged dissent in his inner circle.
He had no enemies, no ego, no agenda, no ideology, no concern
for his image." A day earlier, on same the op-ed page of
the Times, Harvard historian Orlando Patterson described
attending a meeting at the White House in which Ford listened
intently, and with humility, to the points made by a diverse
group of experts.
In short, President Ford was totally unlike the testosterone-fueled
political and business leaders whose faces typically are found
on the front page of news and business magazines. And, I can
assure you, Ford's were not the traits of leadership advocated
in most business schools today where take-charge decisiveness
is prized over the ability to listen. In short, Americans are
getting the kind of leadership our society celebrates. That
being the case, we cannot expect a sea change in the behavior
of those who should be more open to candor without there first
being a change in the context in which leaders operate.
In the private sector, change will not occur until corporations
consciously begin to select, train, develop and reward leaders
who listen--that is, Gerald Fords in the making. Yet, in an
on-going study of top managers in large corporations, my research
colleagues and I have found that executives are far-more-often
selected for their proven ability to compete with their fellow
members in the C-suite than for their demonstrated teamwork.
This reward system encourages the hoarding of information, which
then leads to testosterone-fed conflict. Changing that system
is the responsibility of boards of directors, the people who
have the ultimate responsibility for choosing leaders. Truly
independent boards also would go a long way toward providing
a needed check on executive ego, and a positive source of objective,
disinterested truth to power.
It is often useful to bring in outside "organizational
anthropologists," independent observers skilled in identifying
potentially toxic behaviors and the hidden values which drive
them. In 1973, Warren Bennis and I coined the term "organizational
culture" and created a diagnostic tool to identify the
unique behavioral characteristics of a company, for example
profiling the type of person who tends to get ahead in an organization.
One question we asked was, "What is the company joke that
no one would dare to tell the boss?" Since it is the values
of leaders that drive organizational behavior, any process that
helps to surface those honestly will help to establish a climate
of candor. By objectively asking, "What do we really cherish
and hold dear-quality? technical excellence? power? executive
privilege?"-organizations take a useful first step in that
Finally, actions that break down the artificial barriers that
separate the few at the top of an organization from the many
down-the-line serve to encourage an increased flow of information.
In this regard, continued executive resistance to such proven
practices as employee involvement and other forms of participation
in decision making and sharing information is nothing short
of remarkable, if not shocking. Indeed, nothing has to be invented
to create an effective culture of candor. For example, in the
1980s Kirk Hanson played a major role in calling national attention
to the practices of Springfield Re (now SRC Holdings), a company
where every employee has access to all financial and managerial
information and is taught how to interpret and apply it. The
net effect, in the words of the company CFO, "is like having
700 internal auditors out there in every function of the company."
That is the definition of transparency, of a company with no
secrets, one in which every employee is empowered to speak the
truth. This "culture of candor" was created by CEO
Jack Stack who had to forgo the ego-satisfying pleasure of being
"the boss" and adopt the roles of teacher and listener.
He had to learn to trust his employees with managerial and financial
information typically horded by executives in most companies,
as he had to trust them to act responsibly on the basis of that
information. In sum, this most un-Creon-like behavior is what
the ancient Greeks called "virtuous" leadership.
Practical Applications: "Exit, Voice, or Loyalty"?
The main defenses used against organizational dissidents are
1) to challenge their loyalty, and 2) to dismiss them as angry
malcontents. In 2004, the Bush Administration argued that criticisms
leveled against it by counter-terrorism expert Richard Clarke
should be discounted because the ex-White House aide's judgment
was warped by anger. That argument gained some traction with
the public: understandably, Americans expect a level of institutional
loyalty from public servants and find unseemly those who kiss
and tell (especially those "jilted" by their bosses
and who, thus, are trying to "even the score"). And
it did appear Clarke had become seriously disgruntled when he
found himself out of the loop at the White House, and his advice
ignored by National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice. How do
we know if Clarke's undeniable anger was justified, on the one
hand, or an adequate reason to discredit the veracity of his
critique, on the other?
As the Greeks saw it, the exercise of virtue is not easy, either
for those followers who would speak truth to power or those
leaders who need to hear the truth. Aristotle says it takes
time and effort to build the habits of ethical analysis that
lead to subsequent right behavior. In order to break the comforting
habits that lock us into self-defeating behavior, the Ancient
says we need to embark on a series of exercises to develop our
moral muscles. To illustrate what he means, he cites the practical
case of a man who must struggle to control his anger. Aristotle
starts by acknowledging that everyone gets angry from time to
time, so if a person's face occasionally turns red, that doesn't
signify anything about his character. Nor should we be concerned
with inherited traits: it is morally inconsequential if someone's
face is red all the time. But if a person habitually becomes
inflamed with anger, and those who know him are constantly on
edge waiting for the tell-tale signs of red ears and cheeks
indicative of an oncoming eruption, that is a valid indicator
of a character flaw.
Aristotle then calls positive attention to the person who is
prone to go red-faced with anger but has learned to control
it. In general, he concludes it is virtuous to be even-tempered.
But he doesn't stop there. His discussion of the emotion is
nuanced: He goes on to say there are times when anger is called
for and appropriate. In fact, if one does not become angry over
a grave injustice, he says one cannot be considered virtuous.
The secret is in knowing when to be angry and then how to direct
it usefully. The virtuous person, he says, becomes angry at
the right time, over the right issue, and to the right degree.
He then cites examples of questions we might ask of ourselves
in order to develop the moral muscles need to allow us to do
that habitually. Properly understood, his example of anger management
is not only practical, it serves to illustrate how we can free
ourselves from the prison of whatever particular emotion might
prevent us from behaving virtuously.
A look at what today's social scientists have to say about the
behavior of indignant employees in public and private organizations
provides a framework for understanding Aristotle's ancient ethical
perspective. In the early 1970s, MIT social scientist Albert
O. Hirschman posited that employees who disagree with company
policy have only three options: "exit, voice, and loyalty."
That is, they can 1) offer a principled resignation, 2) try
to change the policy (speak truth to power), or 3) remain loyal
"team players." Experience shows most people choose
option three, the path of least resistance. They swallow whatever
moral objections they have to dictates from above, concluding
they lack power to change things or, worse, will be punished
if they attempt to do so. Indeed, such "loyalty,"
is assumed: most executives expect employees will be good soldiers
and not question company policy (or, if they do, will go away
But sometimes employees find the actions of employers so unconscionable
they feel they have no choice but to resign and "go public"
with their objections. Typically, this is the last resort for
those who have voiced disagreement internally and exhausted
channels of appeal but feel they were not given a serious hearing.
On rare occasions, a respected organizational insider will proffer
such a principled resignation but, typically, those who quit
over matters of principle are powerless, or those who have been
pushed to the extreme of quitting by the disrespect shown to
them by superiors. After all, how many employees would resign
if they felt they were listened to, and their options respected,
even if they didn't get their way on a matter of principle?
In general, people have to be angry as hell before they quit
and go public. And, because anger is such an unattractive, unsettling,
and even frightening trait, angry people seldom have much influence,
and are easily dismissed by those in powers as "out of
But anger can be a socially useful fuel, as the wrathful 2004
Presidential candidacy of Howard Dean illustrates. Dean seemed
legitimately angry over the Bush Administration's decision to
invade a country that he believed had no intent to attack America,
and presented no real threat to the nation's security. His anger-fueled
campaign served the purpose of mobilizing his party to challenge
the Administration's war policies (those Democrats who weren't
angry enough had acquiesced to the invasion of Iraq). Even though
he was a member of the opposition party whose supposed duty
is to offer loyal criticism, Dean paid a price: his hostile
demeanor was ridiculed by allies and foes alike. And, when Dean
ultimately went red-faced wiggy on national television after
a primary loss, he obviously blew it by Aristotle's standards
of appropriate anger: he got angry at the wrong place, to the
wrong degree, and over the wrong issue.
In contrast to politicians, angry ex-employees risk a lot more
than being mocked by late-night talk show hosts: they open themselves
to attacks on their personal lives by the considerable force
of their threatened institutions. That's why most workers have
to be totally teed off before they violate the norms of organizational
loyalty. To get angry enough to face onslaught on one's character
and veracity requires not only fundamental disagreement over
policy--typically involving the conviction that a moral principle
has been violated--but also deep personal hurt. Such were the
mixed motivations in recent high-profile corporate cases of
whistle blowing at cigarette-maker Brown and Williamson and
at Unum Provident Insurance. In both instances, corporate leaders
responded with the standard organizational defense that the
whistle blowers' testimonies should be discounted because they
were "disgruntled" (the ex-employees were portrayed
as angry "nut cases" with enough skeletons in their
closets to outfit a Halloween ball).
Moreover, many institutional leaders argue that employees owe
loyalty to them as individuals. In contrast, whistleblowers
typically say they owe their first allegiance to their organizations.
Indeed, it is when employees believe their leaders betray their
organization's integrity that their anger mounts sufficiently
to justify the risks of whistle blowing. Nothing makes formerly
loyal employees angrier than values-betraying leaders who claim
"L'etat, c'est moi." In contrast, Aristotle
says the organization takes precedence over its leaders.
Hence, to the Administration's charge that such critics as former
Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neil, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, and
national security advisor Richard Clarke were "too angry"
to be trusted, Aristotle would say, of course they were angry:
"Those who are not angry at the things they should be angry
at are thought to be fools." Indeed, if they weren't angry
they would still be inside, loyally carrying out orders, or
trying to voice disagreement through established processes.
They had tried that, failed in their attempts to be heard, and
then opted for vocal exits. Doubtless, it would be prettier
if whistle blowers weren't so angry, but anger is often a necessary
spur to doing the right thing. Indeed, what might have happened
had Secretary of State Colin Powell allowed his reported anger
over the decision to invade Iraq to overcome his military-disciplined
instinct to loyally fall into line with Administration policies?
Had he instead resigned and publicly voiced his concerns, would
Americans then have been so accepting of the questionable evidence
on W.M.Ds? Who knows? But it does seem clear that if we too
quickly ignore the angry words of disgruntled former officials,
fewer of them will be willing to step forward, and there will
be fewer safeguards of the public interest. Aristotle adds one
important admonition: "the good tempered man is not revengeful."
A PERSONAL EXAMPLE
As I now read Aristotle, I can't help but recall the most difficult
career issue I have personally struggled with: what to do when
the leaders of the organization I worked for betrayed its essential
values. Because I had firmly believed in those values, my response
was over-the-top emotional: I became mad as hell. When I expressed
that anger to colleagues and friends, their response was "Cool
it. They're not going to change, so it won't do you any good
to get angry. If you can't live with the situation, then just
quit. But don't burn bridges by making a stink." One friend
went so far as to tell me that my anger was "unattractive."
Frankly, I didn't know what to do. I didn't know how to think
about the issue, and didn't know how to behave. But since the
only thing more damning that can be said about an employee than
he is "angry" is that he is "disloyal,"
I bottled up my emotions, quit, and went quietly away.
Years later, the organization was still in a tailspin, and I
found myself still angry and not at all certain I had done the
right thing. In retrospect, I wish I had been able to analyze
the issue with the help of Aristotle's insights. After rereading
what he has to say about anger, I now feel my response had been
half right, at best. I still believe I did the right thing by
quitting when my bosses put themselves above the values of the
organization, but I don't think I channeled my anger in a useful
way: before I quit I should have tried to offer them a constructive
suggestion by which they could have gotten back on track. And,
once having left, I think I erred in not having had the moral
courage to "go public" to call attention to what was
happening. Had I reached out to powerful outsiders who also
cared about the organization, I might have prevented the leaders
from damaging its integrity. For that course to have succeeded,
I would have had to be clearly acting for the good of the organization,
and not in a "revengeful" sprit.
Aristotle's insight that virtuous people become angry at the
right time, over the right issue, and to the right degree, now
allows me to see that, by repressing my legitimate anger, the
act of quitting not only had no constructive impact, I also
made myself unhappy. Had I asked myself the ethical questions
Aristotle raises, I think I might have directed my anger more
positively, and gotten rid of it much sooner. Indeed, I even
might have effectively spoken truth to power.
1. Warren Bennis, "Building a Culture of Candor,"
The Conference Board Annual Report, 2004
2. These two examples from James O'Toole, Vanguard Management,
7. Quoted in Noel Tichy and Stratford Sherman, Control Your
Own Destiny or someone Else Will, Doubleday, 1993
8. I was head of seminar programs at the Aspen Institute at
9. Quoted in James O'Toole Leadership A to Z. Jossey-Bass,
10. Bennis, op cit
11. Edward E. Lawler " " Jossey-Bass,
12. Bob Woodward, State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III,
Simon and Schuster, 2006
13. Ron Suskind, The One Percent doctrine: Deep Inside America's
Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11, Simon and Schuster, 2006
14. Ron Suskind, The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the
White House, and the Education of Paul O'Neil, Simon and
15. David Brooks, "Building a Team of Rivals," New
York Times, 2006
16. Stephen L. Carter, (integrity), Basic Books, 1996
17. Warren Bennis and Daniel Goleman, "Transparency is
Inevitable," 2007, Unpublished ms
18. Frank Rich, op-ed column, N.Y.Times, January 7, 2007
19. James O'Toole, Making America Work, Continuum, 1981
20. Quoted in James O'Toole Leadership A to Z. Jossey-Bass,
21. Richard A. Clarke, Against All Enemies, Free Press,
22. James O'Toole, Creating the Good Life: Applying Aristotle's
Wisdom to Find Meaning and Happiness, , Rodale, 2005
23. Albert O. Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, Harvard
University Press, 1970