Truth to Power

Many years ago I saw a documentary in which Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter spoke about how and who they surrounded themselves with. They readily acknowledged that everyone that works with the president of the United States is eager to say “yes” to every idea the president has. No one wants to question the president much less confront him (even in a nice way) – on anything.

That is the nature of leadership – the people around the leader want to please him or her. That is why they are there, especially in churches. Most staff members have no desire to become the senior pastor; we’re pretty content being the second chair (see “Leading from the Second Chair,” an excellent book by Bonem and Patterson). Pastors need not be threatened by their staff and most of them are not. However, pastors rarely get the unvarnished truth from their staff. Staff often go out of their way to avoid telling their bosses what is really going on with the staff and/or with the members whom they see. Staff don’t want to tell bad news to their superior. Staff will do almost anything to shield their leader from reality. Why?

Several reasons:

  • they don’t want to get punished as the messenger of the bad news.
  • they might be asked to dig deeper into this and that might cause them to find even more unpleasant things
  • they don’t know how to tell their boss bad news

Presidents Ford and Carter gave a solution that is both simple but exceedingly hard. The answer, according to them, is to surround yourself with people of integrity AND to empower them to tell you the honest, sometimes brutal truth, even when it comes out harsh. The balancing act is to permit them to say it to you, the leader; to say it judiciously (not being a dark cloud all the time but using those rights in a wise way); and especially for the leader to receive it in a positive manner (constructive criticism). How the boss receives the information will completely determine how that person and others on staff respond the next time there is bad news to be shared or when a leader needs some excruciating honesty.

I can tell you it begins with the leader – as these two presidents stated. The leader must get the right people, give explicit rights to certain members of his/her inner circle to speak very frankly as needed, and then receive that info as info (not as criticism) in a way that will invite further honesty. After all, a leader must have people of integrity around him/her all the time – anything less hurts the organization and its purpose.

Lead On!


  1. It is unfortunate that both of these men were one term presidents… 😉