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Truth-telling, power and courageous leadership

In a recent blog ‘speaking truth to power’ Benny Callaghan referred to the lived experience of those who identify an organisational culture that is diseased, proped up by people in power that are resistant to authentic change.

Benny’s insightful blog raises a whole series of issues for those who are in power and for those who perceive cultural and systemic illness in any organisation or indeed in any society. There is indeed the issue of ‘power’ being spoken to and the issue of ‘power’ being able to hear.

By ‘power’ Benny means people in positions of authoritative power (Board Directors, CEOs, management), and by ‘speaking truth to’ he means the ability to give feedback and name what is perceived to be going on.

Courageous leadership requires you to speak the truth to power. What appears to be lacking in so many people in power (and from time to time, those who want to speak truth to power) is any sense of critical consciousness.

The world of noise, materialism, information, entertainment, consumerism and the constant drip-feed of inane notions of what makes for a successful life provide little space for critical consciousness. Power’s own energy adds a further impediment for those who want it and want to incorporate it as a personal attribute of success rather than as a measure of responsibility.

Yet whether it is assessing one’s own use of power, addressing power used unjustly, analysing the way in which power shapes a culture or a society – two simple questions engaged with honestly can provide an entry point into critical consciousness and counter false consciousness:

Why are things the way they are?

Whose interest does it serve?

To ask these questions however requires a sense of self, the organisation within which one works and the world within which one is embedded.

Within the context of organisational dynamics at a personal level, say for a Board Director or a manager, the questions have the potential (if applied honestly) to reveal that things are the way they are because it appeals to their own sense of hubris and success and it is self-interest that resists any change that would expose inadequacies or reduce power in any way.

At an organisational level the questions may identify a collective commitment to outcomes that actually dilute and divert the organisation form achieving its mission and vision, foregrounding internal organisational outcomes as a priority competing with the priority of customer and client outcomes.  The Enrons, the Barclays, the HIHs are just three real life examples of where the outcomes for everyone were catastrophic.

At a social and cultural level, systemic and ingrained injustice can be exposed. Why are things the way they are in Australia? Why are things the way they are for Indigenous people? Why are things the way they are for those seeking asylum in our free land? Why are things the way they are for those living with ingrained locational disadvantage?

As Benny suggested, this type of analysis is bloody hard. It exposes self-interest, mediocrity, self-protection and self-promotion, hubris and potentially a range of things about us and the manner in which we behave.

Self-analysis and social analysis are not easy tasks.  But they are better options than a mindless existence that stifles excellence and the rights of others to a full and meaningful life.



Andrew, thanks for elaborating on this theme – it is critical for creating better communities and organisations.
I really like your questions, especially ‘in whose interest does it serve?’
These questions can act as a powerful internal ethical compass.

Ana Dininno

Thanks a ton for this – love the info and agree with your perspective. However many others will not, so thanks for speaking up. Nice blog, well done!

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