Creative LeadershipStrategy & Marketing

The Impact of Brutal Honesty

Telling the truth can cut both ways...

I had an interesting experience recently when talking to the marketing director at a major Christian ministry. His organization is going through a difficult transition, has some financial challenges, and the future is uncertain. Especially from a communications and branding perspective, they need real help. So the marketing director went to the head of the ministry and suggested they bring my team in to explore the possibilities.

The leader responded that he really liked what Cooke Media Group had accomplished with other organizations and agreed that we were excellent at what we did. But he ultimately decided not to invite us in for a meeting. Surprised, the marketing director asked why. The leader responded, “Because Phil is brutally honest, and I don’t think we’re ready for that.”

When he relayed the story to me, I was taken back for a moment. I know that I do have a reputation for being honest and frank, but I don’t often consider it from the perspective that it might cost us clients. So I began some soul searching about how to speak the truth – in love of course – but speak the truth nevertheless.

There are plenty of consultants and media people that sugarcoat issues. They are more concerned with keeping the business or staying employed than risking it all on speaking truth into the situation. And I have to admit, I’ve sometimes wrestled with the decision.

But that’s when a friend reminded me of the now famous “Last Lecture” from the Randy Pausch, the Carnegie-Mellon professor who’s terminally ill with pancreatic cancer. His last lecture to his students was based on his principles for living, and it’s been seen so often on Youtube, that now a book has been published.

One of the principles he discussed with his students was “If I could leave you with only 3 words, those words would be TELL THE TRUTH. If I could leave you with 3 more, it would be ALL THE TIME.”

That’s worth thinking about. Tell the truth, all the time. In the religious world – actually, in most worlds – we’ve become so concerned with everyone’s feelings, that we’ve forgotten how to speak the truth. But how many failed ministry projects, bad media programs, screwed up organizations, insecure leaders – not to mention millions of donor dollars – could have been saved had someone at a critical moment had the courage to speak the truth?

Obviously it needs to be done for the right reasons, in love, with respect, and through appropriate channels. But it needs to be done. In the church today, we even have a screwed up concept of “judgment.” Keep in mind the famous scriptural command “Do not judge” actually doesn’t tell us not to judge – but that before you judge, take the beam out of your own eye, so you can see clearly enough to judge accurately. In other words, don’t be a hypocrite.

Perhaps the best compliment about my new book “Unique: Telling Your Story in the Age of Brands and Social Media” came from former Walden Media consultant John Seel when he said, “It’s the most discerning book about marketing and branding I’ve ever read.” He meant that rather than going full bore toward or against church and ministry marketing, it was an exploration of both possibilities and a balanced discussion of both sides. From a marketing consultant for movies like “The Chronicles of Narnia,” that’s pretty high praise.

If you speak the truth into your church, ministry, non-profit, personal relationships, business – wherever – and you do it with grace, compassion, and discernment, their decision to accept or reject it isn’t your problem – it’s theirs.

You’ve done your job.

Be discerning and be gracious, but speak the truth – all the time.

Let me hear your thoughts about the issue.

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  1. To be brutally honest, I think it all started when it went from basic soul saving to saving the saving of the religious bottom line and politically correct religion seemed to be a confortable wave to ride at the time. Everyone ran from their denominations to a generic, non offensive message disguised by feel good music.

    Take the presentation and showmanship out of religion and see if God’s word still sells. No smoke, No mirrors. That might expose more truth and a back to basics sell in religious broadcasting.

    I am not wanting to destroy the business, I think this approach could bring more VALUE and TRUTH in brodcasting religion, with less light on the biblical interpreter or in many cases the star of the show! Is it to late or even doable in this day and time ?

    (not in the industry)

  2. Usually there's a person at the top who was ultimately responsible for the decisions made and that person is more concerned about saving face than solving the problem.  Sadly, that person appears in this case to be the person making a decision as to whom to  have audit or review the program.

    This is a good argument for separating the managment and auditing/review process and not having those who have a motive to protect their own interests over the interests of the organization in charge of both.

    It's also worth stating that a professional opinion, while it is paid for and should be given as truth, can be sincere, but also sincerely wrong.  Consultants, in my opinion, need to maintain some humility in the process as well and recognize what it is hard and fast truth and what is opinion and be able to differentiate between the two of them in giving an assessment.

  3. Many of us say we want truth… but we really want it on our terms and if we can’t have it on our terms then we don’t want it. The truth forces us to look soberly at the situation that stands before us… it forces us to have to make decisions that often take us outside of our comfort zones. Sometimes it’s so easy to stay where we are comfortable, even if everything around us is falling apart. The truth can hurt – especially when we are not ready to hear it – but it is meant for our liberation when given with the right motives.

    Think about a doctor who performs surgery on you: The doctor has to cut you and dig deep and maybe even tear down some things in order to rebuild and strethen your body’s internal structure. Does it hurt? Yes. It would hurt a WHOLE LOT MORE if not for anesthesia!

    The anesthesia is the “in Love” part of how we should tell the truth… in love. The love aspect enables a hearer of truth to be better able to receive it into their lives – especially when it hurts. The truth will often hurt when it contradicts what we believe about ourselves, but ultimately if embraced, decisions based on its foundation will yield growth and new life.

    Jesus said that, “if we believe in Him and continue in His words then we will know the truth and the truth will set us free.” Ultimately, to surgercoat an issue is to allow someone (who needs to hear the truth) to walk around with an unrealistic view of themselves – in essence at some level they are living a lie.

    Allen Paul Weaver III
    author, Transition: Breaking Through the Barriers

  4. As someone who is a self-described 'brutally honest person', there's two ways to take our personalities:

    1) You always know where you stand with us;

    2) You always know where you stand with us.

    In other words, if we're saying something you don't like, you know it's the truth; and if we're saying something you do like, we're telling the truth.

    I like what APWIII said above: it's the "telling the truth in love" that's always the key to sharing our thoughts.

    As a consultant myself, I'm always told "hey, tell us like it is; that's why we hired you." But what many people really mean is "tells us the stuff that's negotiable, but don't bother with our non-negotiables." Now insomuch as being honest and evaluating the why as much (or more) than the how or the what, those 'non-negotiables' may be the very things that need the most change. It's one thing to not change the Scriptural and doctrinal truths; it's another to get past the "but we've always done it that way" mentality.

    Phil, take it as a compliment: being told you're brutally honest affirms that you're not talking to make a buck, but often bucking them to let you talk.

  5. This is a tough one Phil. My Pastor preached a great message once about the three ways we learn:

    1. The easy way (via other people's mistakes)

    2. The hard way (via our own mistakes)

    3. The tragic way (when its too late)

    I know as a parent sometimes you have to stand back and let your kids fail a bit, otherwise they simply will not listen to you. Then you come in softly and tenderly and show them how to win.

    I think this is the key to success in many areas (not just TV ministry). The first step is admitting failure.

    As the old saying goes; "when the student is ready, the teacher arrives". 



  6. I have learned from all three ways..

    The leader responded, “Because Phil is brutally honest, and I don’t think we’re ready for that.”

     All I can say to something like that is WOW! It would set me back too.

  7. I hear you Phil, and I know you're right, but sometimes I get tired. 

    It's exhausting work to tell the truth to people who are going to be sad, enraged, frightened or disappointed.  Their emotions wear me out.  When they act out, it's so tiring that I make my relationship with them less personal than it previously was.  It's how I leverage a bit of peace for myself.  Truthfulness is a matter of integrity, but peace is a matter of survival.

    It's one thing to be hired as a consultant and tell the client something he finds uncomfortable.   It's another to maintain a relationship over time with someone who tantrums over the smallest exposure to uncomfortable information. 

    If you came in and told one of my tantrum throwers something s/he didn't want to hear, I'd drop to my knees and thank God.  It would spare me the necessity of doing it myself and taking the flak.  

    There are lots of people who bend the truth or lie by omission to keep the tantrum throwers on even keel.  I used to be annoyed with these folks, but I'm coming to understand them better.  At the very least, I sympathize.  If the tantrum throwers of the world don't hear the truth as often as the rest of us, maybe it's at least partly their fault. 

    I'm betting a lot of employees are grateful when a hired consultant comes in and tells the boss hard truths.   After all, if they told a certain type of boss something he didn't want to hear, the retaliation would be swift and sure.

  8. Beware – when you TELL THE TRUTH, you will be shown the door. Off with your heads. Some don't lose a client…they a lose job. Jesus told the truth (was the Truth), and they crucified Him. He told arrogant leaders their seeing eyes were blind. How about THAT for an example?

    Phil, you lost one potential client. So what? You'll get another, already have scores. Your phone rings everyday because you work in the 0.1% of Christian media that gets listened to. Pastors who think "if I can just get PHIL to get me on TV." Or, "Phil can make my show BETTER, I know he can." How many of your clients know the truth…but are reluctant to do anything about it? Plenty. Wussies.

    Your post makes sense…gotta tell the truth. Gracious, real, honest, whenever possible. Jesus wouldn't have it any other way.

    But beware the Hammer & Nails.

  9. Interesting thought Anthony…


    When I first read Phil's account, I was thinking this ministry leader simply knows that he and the organization are not quite ready to be 'students' as you're old saying goes. He was simply being brutally honest and wise that Phil's candor on a situation might hurt more than help … right now. But maybe in the future the organization can be wise enough to take the brutal honesty that may be necessary for them to learn and grow.

  10. I know of three upper management ministry media/marketing types who have been given the left foot of fellowship this year due to delivering the brutal truth. These are guys who don’t have to pick up another client, they have to find another way to pay the mortgage — and since do-not-compete agreements are commonplace in ministry today, they end up having to uproot and rebuild everything in a new location.

    Phil, I bow down in your general direction for delivering “brutal truth” — I have witnessed it at a major media ministry that I brought you into. It is now about 2 years into that contract, and major changes are happening. The bad news was not received when given by staff, but when they paid a fairly good amount, and flew the consultant in, they would have been stupid not to at least hear you out. Thank you.

    Face it — these leaders have built something and it has grown and for them to hear and act on new advice is to admit that they don’t have all the answers and that they are not infallable and that they are a bit more human than they probably want to admit. Often a catharsis has to take place before hearing happens, and then action is a whole other topic.

    Tell the truth, keep working and praying toward excellence and keep your resume polished and your network intact.

  11. I always encourage those looking to reach non-believers (by Internet or any media) to spend a LOT of time just reading the gospels over and over and over again in various translations.

    I am always floored at the MULTITUDE (thousands!) who followed Jesus, by foot, in the heat or whatever the weather, with nothing to eat (unless He provided). There was something about Him that drew the non-believers and the believers of that day. They simply HAD to hear His message, be with Him, follow after Him.

    And then He would blow their minds by TOUCHING the "notorious sinners" of the day…and then go home and EAT with them, which was one of the most intimate things you could do back then.

    And they loved Him all the more for that.

    Of course, the RELIGIOUS people of the day couldn't stand all this, but again I was struck that everyone simply ignored them. Jesus would make comments, but the crowd–who usually had to bow down to the religious leaders–usually ignored him.

    Today, the masses of non-believers stay away in DROVES from our messages/Message. We scream at the sinner, keeping them away, while Jesus justed loved them to Him.

    I remember an old Cornerstone magazine comic about the difference between mainstream rock and Christian rock:

    Mainstream rock: WE'RE GOING TO HELL!

    Christian rock: YOU'RE going to hell!

    To the leaders who don't want to hear the truth, the masses will stay away. For those who WANT to hear the truth, they may have to get back to the gospel and see how simple and humble it always was, and always is.

  12. The greatest prejudice in this day is the prejudice against self-incrimminating truths.  Witness the easy banter some media ministry personalities have when they talk about their love of peer ministry leaders of opposite color than them!  But notice they won't go to truths of self-critique that maybe they should not have bought or received that Rolls Royce, or Gulfstream, or mansion parsonage or appeared on the other greedy fellow's ministry program to sell each other's copycat "life changing," ALWAYS "life changing!" books.  Uh hum, such leaders actually HATE truth, if it involves any self-critique whatsover.  In that they often have total, unconflicted prejudice.

  13. What surprised me about the comment was the fear of hearing what someone else had to say. Speaking the "Truth" in this case simply would have been hearing the "truth" according to Phil. If I were you, Phil Cooke, I would take that as a major compliment. They must feel your version of the truth is worth it's weight in Gold! The reason I say 'version' is that in many things there is no absolute right or wrong way to do things (other than the glaringly obvious ones that make newspaper headlines). One size does not fit all, and one consultant is not the gold standard (sorry Phil). What concerns me more is when we are not willing to hear alternative viewpoints from someone with no ax to grind. I'm sure all of us fail in this area at one time or another – be it at home or at work – at least I do.

  14. Phil,

    A great post and a nice wake-up call. Thanks for being a bit vulnerable and, well, truthful.


  15. It's the reason the world thinks the church is out of touch…well, part of the reason. We broadcast, print and post stuff that's mediocre at best. The church continues to look for the path of least resistance (and dollars) and then pats each other on the back. Just because someone has Photoshop doesn't make him a designer, just because you bought a mac doesn't make you the next Scorsese.

    But telling someone what they are doing sucks and doing so in a loving way is not easy. The problem often lies in the emotional connection they have to the work, to the video, to the logo, to the preaching…etc. We aren't just critiquing the work, we are critiquing the worker.

    Until we learn to take and give honest critique we will continue to fall behind and stay in the shadows. Growth pains happen…but they also tell you you are growing.

  16. Michal, great post.  At the heart of the media ministry problem is fear of rebuke, escpecially a rebuke, chastisement or correction from a prophet.  Media ministries only entertain… entertaining prophets, which is rather unbiblical.  Media ministries say, "We don't want or need any Old Testament prophets."  And in believing this, they end up with New Testament profits.

  17. Wow, I've no idea how you got there Robert.

    Media ministry is only for entertaining prophets? Are you kidding me? I'd suggest you experience what media ministry is before making such a sweeping generalization that is completely inaccurate.

  18. Thanks for telling me about this post. I'm tracking with you. As a consultant, it's often tough to want to keep the client and choose your words wisely. I respect and agree with your decision for brutal honesty and am glad you wrote about it. Keep it up!


    JS rocks!

    I feel better about myself when I am honest with people yet these days I am going to bed hungry because I don’t like food stamps – they stick to the roof of my mouth!

    What I currently see is the church is being built around a personality and not the people. WWJD has turned into “what would pastor do”.  Almost every single church staff meeting I have even been a part of the biggest concern was pleasing the Sr Pastor.  Being effective and helping people took a backseat to the desires of the King. A totalitarianism style of leadership is very common place in the church today ruling either by the use of fear or manipulating people with “blessings”!

    The sad part is pride and arrogance don’t see themselves in a mirror. For the most part these are good men and women who are blinded by their own insecurities. Real honestly usually causes growth after you work through the pain, but one must be open, vulnerable and courageous to receive truths that are outside of their own reality.  The truth hurts!

    The good news is I see a change on the horizon. There is a new breed of leadership that is vulnerable and is more concerned about being effective then getting their own way.  These seem to be the churches that are experiencing explosive growth and I pray that continues.

  20. I have lived your article, and survived, well, kinda. I told the truth, and my administrator listened and said that he wanted to change things, but it would have to wait. After 10 plus years of always needing to wait till "next fiscal year", an opportunity in the secular world opened up in marketing and sales, and I went for it, and I am loving it!

    So my experience is that I spoke up as often as I felt appropriate, but no change, so I made a change for myself. I thank the Lord for this opportunity, and for tools like your articles and books from Seth Godin (The Dip), and Patrick Lencioni (3 Signs of A Miserable Job) of wisely pursuing another career elsewhere. My wife too is happier…much less stress!

     I have never been happier, and it was a result of being honest with them, and myself.

     Thanks for being honest Phil!

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