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, 



  • I agree that candor is essential for progress. The question is, how do you overcome the politics and the culture of the organization to make a difference? We know the problem. We do not have tested ways of solving it. If Mr. Ford had difficulties in changing the culture, where is the hope for others? What I have noticed over my many years in corporate life is that those who tell the truth are definitely more courageous and are at peace with their conscious. However, they do compromise their career growth because the existing culture does not accept them. I would still rather be right and truthful, than political and a roadblock to progress.

    • I have often been accused of being far ‘too candid’ in my career and yes, I agree that the status quo does not support “career growth” with respect to ‘being candid or courageous’. I’m providing the URL to a 132 Page book I just wrote; it was released last week: (The Integrity Channel). After spending nearly three years as a consultant in the automotive industry (25+ year executive business veteran among other F100 industries, all told). It’ short, entertaining, insightful, provocative and candid. It’s about getting leaders in all organizations to ‘think’ about their culture and communications from a different perspective. I invite you to visit my Amazon author page: & pick up a copy of the book. It might help you begin to start asking the questions that will lead to the answers you’re searching for. A portion of the proceeds to the book are being donated to the Asperger’s Society (San Jose/Orange County) — so it’s a win-win! Enjoy the book and I look forward to your feedback on the thoughts that it produces which are in line with your discussion. (mjm)

    • Chander,
      There is no doubt risk, as you put it. And there is a reward of conscience. There is also the reward of growth, of engaging life and seeing where it goes. The mainstream media — especially the conservative wing — has taken to reading my material not to understand but to attack. My first instinct is to feel, and then respond in defense; but there’s a satisfaction in having written something that sparks a response, and there is a new opportunity to learn! Maybe they have something to say. Maybe I could have put it better. Maybe I didn’t understand the complexity. In a large sense this adds to my knowledge, experience, connection. If this were a job, and they were my managers, perhaps I would be fired. But I would have gained a whole lotta knowledge for next time.
      I’m with you: keep living with your conscience and trusting that you can work the consequences!
      Dan Mulhern

  • Candor is a main charactor trait I look for in political candidates. As a citizen, and sometimes as a journalist, I have asked difficult questions of elected officials and condidates. The officials and candidates who show anger, or arrogance in response to difficult questions are the ones I do not vote for.

    So often I have heard journalists privately say that a candidate, government official, or corporate spokesperson lied to them, but then the reporter does not write in their article that they were lied to. The day reporters, report the lies and identify the lies as lies, is the day we have a free press.

    Mark John Hunter

  • Candor is an essential tool within the Leadership toolbox, but because it is a pointed and very sharp tool it must be used very carefully – and with precise timing. Other readers point out valid conflicts between candor and organizational culture. At times it may be critically necessary to change the organizational culture, slowely over time. Culture only changes (for the better) when demonstrated organizational behaviors reflect the organizational Values. Likewise, when demonstrated organizational behaviors are contradictory to organizational Values, then culture changes for the worse. This alignment of demonstrated behaviors with stated Values, or it’s misalignment, remains the skeleton of organizational culture. Consider our Congress, your church, your political party, your work group, product warranty action, a retail store, etc.

    Berri Meyers

    • Barry,
      I love your articulation about alignment and the image of the skeleton! From a fine military person like yourself it makes me think of the beauty and rightness of a soldier at attention, or a martial artist offering respect through his physical posture.
      How critical it is to keep talking and working the values.

  • Candor is important in determining truth. One cannot be deceptive in analysis of issues and problems. Solutions come from truthful recognition. If one has honor, s/he must be candid. A half-truth is a lie. To repeat that lie, or to even accept it, compounds the difficult search for truth. People who are candid in political situations often risk reprisal. When this happens, the truth becomes overcome with fear. That further obscures truth. Humans have a natural tendency to not want to be told the ‘real skinny’. However that feeling must be substituted with a burning desire to discover where the real truth lies. Truth is not in concealment nor obscurity. Candor is truth. Unfortunately, we are most often surprised and refreshed by what should be an everyday occurance by leaders.

  • When leaders lose confidence and react by lashing out rather than engaging in honest, constructive dialogue we loose so very much. Truly the ‘tipping point’ between being a pretty good leader and a great leader appears to be candor and the capacity to articulate passionately and honestly the condition of the organization and self. When leaders react without candor they often leave people and systems confused and frustrated. Often times we see that if the leader was able to dialogue and engage in strong discussion about issues with team members all the misunderstandings, the perceived issues, and tensions melt away as the energy and efficiency of the team is built up. Leaders show their true colors when under extreme pressure, sometimes those colors are surprising. The wonderful Francis Hesselbein said it best when she said…”leadership is about teaching how to BE not how to do.

  • I’ve been reading Al Gore’s book, “The Assault on Reason”. It addresses the weakness that candor has in today’s public discourse. We are expected to be lying even when we are being completely honest and candid. This is a troubling development in that the ability to trust another’s word is diminishing to the point of institutionalized paranoia. I’ve been involved in a neighborhood issue that demonstrates this principle at work, where no one speaks directly at anyone. Everyone makes assumptions. Appeals are made to exclusivity versus conversation about facts. Everyone is trying to cover themselves from the fallout of the one making the most noise, accusations and calls for officials to be fired. Those who are trying to be reasonable are all being called the bad guys. Jealousy, greed, fear and hatred all can hide behind the smoke screen of this lack of candor thing that is plaguing us. The worst of human nature rears up in these occasions and it drives those who try to be leaders tend to stand on the sideline to see who has the upper hand and then choose sides with the victorious. This is disengenuous. We are in desperate straits as a society this way. God help us to stand in the light with all this pressure to go do things in the dark.

  • If I may take a moment to state that change in culture is very possible and candor can be addressed. Often it seems cyclical yet I challenge the readers to embrace the fact that change is a process not an event. Keeping this in mind has given me comfort as I have pushed forward and at other times let the dust settle. Finally, timing really is significant, isn’t it? Is candor a dressing down or another perspective with facts? Does it have to be a challenge as much as it is “what would it look like if….?” Desiree Simon

    • Desiree,
      There is a lot of wisdom packed in this little blog comment. Taking the long view can change everything. And you also hit on the enormous power of a good question!
      Thanks for the wise contribution!

  • Good morning! In my younger days as a parent I would provide my daughters with their options when confronted with a barrier. Of late, I have learned the value of a good question. For example, not all that long ago when our oldest daughter shared a conflict she was facing I caught myself letting her know that she had THREE options and instead asked her what were her options? She thought and thought then responded, well actually I have at least 5. Hmm. 5? As we moved through this process of digging deeper with meaningful questions she suddenly stood up, thanked me for the “coaching”, and made a decision. She was not limited by my three ideas but found herself exploring all that she could do then all that she was willing to do. Yes, there is enormous power in good questions.

    Desiree from Petoskey!

    ps loved the clip of MI!!

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