Creative Leadership

Something New: A Meeting with Total Honesty

A remarkable thing happened to me the other day. I was in a client meeting, and the CEO opened the meeting with a statement that surprised me. He said, “This is a very important meeting about the future of our media strategy. That’s why I need everyone here to be absolutely honest. I know we have problems, and we’re looking for solutions. So you are protected here. Whatever you say will not impact your job in a negative way whatsoever. I’m looking for real answers, and I need you to be completely honest and accurate.” Then he opened it up for discussion.

That request totally changed the dynamic of the meeting.

Everyone knew he was serious, and that he actually meant what he said. When he finished, it was like pulling the curtain back to reveal the unvarnished truth about the organization. People were honest – but not cruel or vindictive. They respected each other, but the new atmosphere allowed everyone in the room to let go, and be comfortable saying things they might ordinarily have held back.

As a result, we started some dramatic changes within the organization. Positive changes, that will have a great impact on the future. So what did that experience teach me?

1) It takes courage to start up a meeting like that. You never know what people might say, and I admired the leader for opening up to possible criticism. Many leaders I know don’t want to hear that kind of honesty from their own people.

2) It needs to happen more often. I sit in too many meetings where the truth is thrown under the bus. Politics prevail, and kingdoms continue to be built. It does nothing but muck up the works, and make real success harder to come by.

3) If this happens to you, don’t take it as a chance to nail other people. It’s not about getting even, it’s about fixing problems. Be gracious, because you rarely know all the circumstances from your position around the table.

4) This isn’t your time to rant or express your personal philosophy. Yes – the leader wants you to be honest and forthright, but he’s not interested in a lecture about how they’re been doing it all wrong and how you have all the answers. You’re part of a team. Act like it.

5) Commit to a life of “brutal honesty.” Being honest doesn’t mean being ugly or mean, it’s about speaking the truth in confidence, and with the expertise to back it up.

Let’s all decide to have more meetings like this one.

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  1. Sounds great and I'll take your introductary statements as truthful that he was serious and  meant what he said.  Usually meetings like that aren't as cut and dry as what you would like.  Feelings can get hurt.  Relationships can be damaged.  People can be "too honest" or lack tact and someone can be piled up on.

    Usually the leader needs to lay down some ground rules and before people will believe and trust to open up in that environment they'll need to see the leader model what he wants.  It might be important to take the meeting off site in a retreat environment with some time and prep work taken to set the stage and take people out of their familiar surroundings.

    Organizations build up their informal rules and practices for a reason. 

    If you have a leader who has a thin skin or a quick temper and has a reputation for reacting or responding to criticism, I don't care what that leader says in an open meeting about inviting such "honesty".  People are going to believe what they've seen modelled for years unless those experiences are counteracted with some demonstration such as a willingness to acknowledge those shortcomings and a deliberate confession of that behavior being wrong or something that will be on peoples minds.

    Some organizations you might want to have a consultant involved to lend credibility and point to seriousness.

    If you've got an effective leader however that already has a high level of trust and respect I can certainly see that being pulled off, but it's not as simple as just saying it and expecting it in many cases.

  2. Sadly, in many ministries there is a spirit of fear that rules most meetings.  No one wants to displease or look bad in the eyes of the head of the ministry.

    I don't know that even an opening like that could change the room when that spirit dominates everyday.


  3. I find it telling that the comments to your post (great post, by the way, Phil!) have come from the "yeah, but" category – and rightfully so.

    The sad truth is that in MANY (I would say well over half of the churches I've consulted with) churches, there has not been a level of total trust and job security below the senior management team. Sadly, leading by fear of reprisal has been all too common in the church and it's being modeled for new young leaders to see the "results" but not the relational wreckage.

    The humility of a servant leader, as model by our Lord Jesus, should be the norm. I hope your post resonates beyond this blog and into the hearts of pastors everywhere.

    – Anthony

  4. Me Too.  I think it's a great goal and a worthy and right one.

    It doesn't just happen though.  There needs to be a deliberate setting of tone by the primary leader and it takes time to build that level of trust and honesty.  People are generally wired to believe it when they see it and experience it.

    If it hasn't been there before, it takes some time and targetted effort to transform the culture in an organization to operate that way.  It can be done though!

    It sounds to me like Phil hit a meeting with a leader who had already won enough respect and trust that he could translate it into the type of meeting he observed.  That speaks well of that leader and the ability of that organization to respond to the call.

    BTW, if God allows, I'm hoping to be able to translate into some Church consulting.  Would you be willing to give me some input offline?

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