“Speaking Truth to Power” was the headline of a cover story in the Economist marking the occasion of the death of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the former Soviet dissident and Nobel laureate. In his books, Solzhenitsyn chronicled the horrors of Stalinist repression, revealing the hypocrisies of the Soviet system that subjugated people to party. His defiant stand earned him exile but honor and dignity in the West.
The headline serves not only as a fitting epitaph for a dissident, but also as inspiration for those who aspire to lead. We often equate leadership with power, but it’s not always the case that they are connected. Indeed, it may be true that those in senior positions have power, but they may not be leaders. Conversely those without power are true leaders.
How can this be? Those in power who put themselves before others are acting in their own self-interest while those without power who put others before themselves are acting for the good of the group. There’s a degree of altruism in authentic leadership, and while it’s difficult to practice, it does give genuine spine to an organization. Here are three ways to implement real leadership:
Report bad news. A 2006 study by Vital Smarts/Concours Group showed that one key reason that projects failed was that people failed to speak up when they saw things go wrong. Sometimes people are afraid to speak up because the failure may make them or their boss look bad. Yet this is exactly the time to report mistakes so that they can be corrected.
Stick up for your team. One reason bosses get no respect is because they fail to show respect for their people. Such bosses take credit for team success and affix blame to hide their own shortcomings. The boss who lauds his team in front of his superiors is a boss that employees love working for. And when the boss takes the heat for things gone wrong, they like him even more.
Create a righteous culture. Doing the right thing can be difficult; we all suffer temptations from fools and ourselves. But if the boss holds himself accountable and expects the same of others, acting with integrity becomes less of a chore and more of an aspiration. This is not simply about ethics; it also involves treating colleagues with respect and honoring their points of view, especially when they conflict with your own. People want to do the right thing but even more so when others are doing the same.
These three suggestions should not override diplomacy. That is, there are times to speak up and times to remain silent. You don’t need to challenge the boss or the boss’s boss every time you disagree. That kind of constant criticism will marginalize you and diminish your influence. People will assume you’re a crank and dismiss you. Then when you have a real issue, you’ll be ignored as the team’s contrarian, the one no one pays attention to.
Make no mistake, leadership is not sainthood. Leaders have faults first and foremost because they are human. But genuine leaders acknowledge their faults and seek to do better. Their self-awareness is painfully real; they know their personal shortcomings. Over time, their example sets the standards for others to follow.
First posted on HBR.org on 8/19/2008