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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Speaking Truth to Power: The Role of the Executive

Jennifer Pittman
Great leaders listen to messengers and encourage candor

A culture of candor in which people are encouraged to speak out to a leadership that is willing to listen is fundamental to sustainable corporate success, according to James O’Toole, a research professor in the Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California. Yet being candid with someone in power is historically riddled with danger as well.

The author of 14 books on leadership, individual growth and development in the workplace, corporate culture and philosophy, O’Toole was the keynote speaker at a recent Business and Organizational Ethics Partnership meeting held jointly with the California Strategic HR Partnership. He looked at the topic Speaking Truth to Power: The Role of the Executive, incorporating examples from his experience with high-ranking politicos as well as Fortune 500 executives — some of whose ethical fiascos cost them dearly and others whose integrity and skill helped them navigate the wily power structures of success.

“We have all experienced the tyrannical boss or parent and we know what it’s like to be attacked by an alpha dog,” O’Toole said to about three dozen executives and faculty who participated in a lively discussion with panelists that followed. “This is a challenge people really relate to.”

O’Toole is also the Mortimer J. Adler Senior Fellow of the Aspen Institute and has worked in federal administrative positions relating to work in American and economic policy.


Evoking the ego-driven story of King Creon in the fourth century Sophocles’ play Antigone, O’Toole noted the same pride and arrogance of leaders that continues to trouble many present-day organizations. In the play, which most people know for its disturbingly cautionary tale about being a messenger bearing bad news, Creon stubbornly refuses to listen to concerns of his subordinates and, in the end, brings death to his family, ruin on himself and destruction to his country.

The play reminds us of the ethical and pragmatic necessity to move away from ego-driven dictatorial leadership cultures and create more sustainable open and communicative work cultures. O’Toole noted numerous examples of King Creons in the current day news, including current federal administration officials who failed to heed the warnings of numerous messengers before going to war in Iraq as well as the top executives in Fortune 500 companies who steadfastly have denied calls to action by people in their charge. Both at Enron and WorldCom, executives tried to alert company leaders of problems but were marginalized, isolated and scorned, he said. In the government, the same thing happened to people who spoke up against the line of power.


The reality, according to O’Toole, is that speaking truth to power can put people at great personal risk. “The first thing King Creon did was to attack the loyalty of the messenger. That’s the first thing that always happens.” Then there is the hubris of executive privilege, “I’m the boss so I’m right.” Beyond the ego, however, is the perception that listening may also have a price. Will it cost the leader his or her power to listen?

Human resources issues are some of the most taboo: the nature of working conditions, the purpose of the organization, the question of where priorities lie. It is the healthy work environments that continue to question, O’Toole said. “How do you create that place where people will feel safe to speak up? ... How do you create situations in which people feel free to take initiative?” And, how do you sustain it all?

“Imagine the courage to tell Larry Ellison or Jack Welch something they don’t want to hear,” O’Toole pondered. “What we need is a Lear’s fool, one person who has license to actually tell the boss the truth.” Some have suggested that women are best-suited for that role because they don’t have to unlearn the same egotistic behaviors as men do. “The responsibility of the leader is to create situations in which people would feel free to take initiative.” Yet everyone has a role to play.


“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
-- Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Former CIA Director George Tenet was an honest, competent, civil servant in the Clinton Administration whose ego was wounded by the fact that he was never a White House “insider.” As the only high-level holdover in the Bush Administration, Tenet was understandably flattered when the new president’s inner-circle treated him as an integral member of its team. It is easy to see how Tenet would not want to jeopardize his status; nothing could cement his standing more than telling the other members of the team what they wanted to hear.

People with less complimentary news or contrary information such as former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neil, who often voiced dissenting views on the Bush Administration’s fiscal policies, was not seen as a team player and he eventually paid the price for it.

Speaking truth to power requires more than simple truth-telling, according to research by author and Yale professor Stephen Carter. It requires clarity of intent to benefit something greater than the individual. One must be able to discern what is right, which requires moral reflection, and be able to act on a decision openly. “A person of integrity is unashamed,” O’Toole said.

In sum, before speaking truth to power can be considered virtuous, the act must meet several criteria:
It has to be truthful
It must do no harm to innocents
It must not be self-interested (the benefits must go to others, or to the organization)
It must be the product of moral reflection
The messenger must be willing to pay the price
It must not be done out of spite or anger

“We all have a moral obligation to speak truth to power but it’s hard,” O’Toole said. Just as difficult is heeding the warnings as a listener.


We teach our business leaders to be decisive, tough leaders. They are hired to make decisions. “We’re getting the kind of leadership our society celebrates,” O’Toole said. “Maybe we’re getting what we deserve.” The way managers are trained, supervised and rewarded it’s predetermined to produce the kind of leadership we have today. The bottom line, however, is organizations get into trouble when they stifle debate.

Corporate culture would do well to look for more feminine versions of leadership proffered by leaders such as former President Gerald Ford who, while in office, surrounded himself with people with differing perspectives. He encouraged dissent in his inner circle. While not typical traits for our leaders, “feminine” virtues of humility, inclusion, vulnerability, service to others, and respect for people, are characteristic of truly great leaders.


While corporations and their boards need to initiate and support a new respect for traits that support candor, O’Toole said his research has not found this to be happening. More often, executives are selected for their most competitive qualities rather than their demonstrated teamwork.

“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.”

Panel Discussion on the Executive’s Role

In a panel discussion about the role of the executive in speaking truth to power, participants considered the real challenges of speaking up that are inherent in most corporate cultures. The problem exists at most levels of an organization, according to panelists, and while the solution is to encourage open discussion, candor is not about consensus. Listening well doesn’t preclude the need to make unpopular decisions.

The question is “are you listening before you make the decisions?” O’Toole said.

For service providers such as accountants and lawyers, the ethical challenge of speaking up occurs in relationships with superiors as well as with clients.

“If you become too consensus-oriented you can become paralyzed,” one panelist said. “Someone ultimately has to step up to make a decision.”


“In reality, often times truthtellers are wrong,” said Bob Finocchio, who serves as a board member of several companies. “They think they’re right but they’re not, and very often you get conflicting truths. You have to make tough judgments.” The difference about whether you’re stubborn or visionary has to do with whether you’re right. You have to get committed to a decision; otherwise nothing will happen. There is a danger of always being in truth-telling mode and always listening and not acting. It makes execution difficult.”

There are also different management styles, Finocchio said, recalling a time when he clearly stated his negative assessment of a company plan and got the CEO’s shoe thrown at him in response. Although it took him off guard, he knew he was heard, and in subsequent conversations, differing opinions were encouraged. It helps to get as much information as possible. You don’t have to be pleasant all the time.

“He was gathering truth in his own way,” Finocchio said. After that incident, a new parent company came in with an entirely different corporate culture that hushed dissension and eventually shunned him from participation.

One seasoned lawyer in the audience recalled having his new high tech client yelling at him in a meeting and deciding later that it was actually a clear sign that he was being “heard.”


“We have the responsibility to sustain the organization by helping to enable the best organization and people performance we can get from the company. I am looking for organizational obstacles. If it is something like harmful leadership, we have a responsibility for calling that out,” said Eddie Sweeney, National Semiconductor’s worldwide human resources vice president.

Strong leaders, however, have to be able to create change in the organization, and that is often about creating pressure and making unpopular decisions that generate the climate for change.

“We have to spend time having those crucial conversations,” Sweeney said. “It’s not good enough to just call out that behavior. We’ve got to change it somehow. Being heard is probably the most important thing.”


Where the role of counsel used to be to serve the CEO, the world has changed and the client is not the boss or the board but the entity itself, said Craig Nordlund who serves as general counsel and secretary for Agilent Technologies. “It’s somewhat of a schizophrenic job. You don’t always know what the big issues are going to be. The decisions you make on an everyday basis are often issues that seem small at the time but become big over time. You stand alone. You have to be prepared on any given day to lose your job. The last thing you want to do is find yourself in the position of rationalizing your behavior and figuring out how to skate around it. The public is expecting you to be a gatekeeper while your executive teammates are looking to you to be an advocate.”


If the CEO is not sharing the truth with the board, he or she should be fired,” Finocchio said. “One strike and you’re out. It’s very important for a board to make sure it hears many sides and many issues. Some of those are unpleasant conversations, but the board member’s job is to make sure the truth is on the table.”

The risks of speaking truth to power are particularly acute for those in professional services firms like auditors. They are the very "gatekeepers" charged with providing business leaders with clear assessments, warnings of risk and objective counsel related to accounting and internal control matters. These professionals know that the fastest way to lose clients could be to bring them conclusions or observations they don't want to hear. This gets doubly difficult when senior executive(s)' behaviors may be the direct or even indirect root of the company's problem.

Mike Strachan, vice chair and board member at Ernst & Young, clearly identified frictions. "Our firm and our profession have guiding principals and related standards for appropriate treatment for financial transactions,” he said. “It is important to our fiduciary responsibility to the Board of Directors to carefully and completely communicate our observations, assessments, judgments and conclusions. Although we are anxious to communicate in a constructive and supportive manner, it is most important that the realities and judgments related to the issues are not lost in translation."

There are, however, challenges if controls and processes are not in place. “Sometimes an auditor loses business for the right reasons,” Strachan said.

Scientific research by NASA has shown that in simulated disasters, the pilots who took a quick account of what their peers thought were much more likely to avert disaster than those who didn’t ask for counsel and handled the situation on their own. “It’s very, very sound science,” O’Toole said.


Feb 1, 2007