I have learned many lessons about leadership over the years, but among the most powerful came while teaching at an inner-city high school in Flint, Michigan. In mid-year, I took a job teaching woodshop. The previous instructor had found himself locked in a storage cage by his 2nd period class. He got out during 4th period, and immediately quit.

In the 1970s, the boys who were enrolled in woodshop often weren’t cutting it in regular classrooms. The logic of putting disruptive — and sometimes aggressive — students in a classroom with sharp instruments and dangerous power machines escaped me. But somebody had to do it, and I needed the job.

While I wasn’t thinking about leadership at the time, the lessons I learned in that classroom are highly relevant for business leaders today. Going in, I decided to pay attention to four specific things.

First, I had to decide who I was going to “see” in my woodshop classroom. How I saw these boys, and what I believed they were capable of, would frame everything we did together. I had a choice: To see them as troublemakers, losers and rejects — or to see them as young adults trying to make sense of life, just like I was.

Second, I couldn’t make this class a success on my own — the students had to be a part of putting things back in order. It was important that they be fully engaged. We first paid attention to the space. We collaborated on how we would clean up the classroom, figured out where we stood on supplies, and fixed up the tools. Throughout this process, we were not only taking a classroom inventory, we were assessing each other.

Third, we decided together what it was going to mean to be a member of the woodshop class. We could spend a semester with me exerting control and them resisting being controlled, or we could create something meaningful. Together, we had to determine our shared future. We spent some time talking about things such as:

·   What does it mean to be a part of this class?

·   What expectations do you have of me? And me of you?

·   How should we treat each other when problems crop up or things get testy?

·   What is it that we want to do here together?

And finally, I wanted them to quickly begin a creative project using wood. The act of creation gave them a sense of ownership and meaning.

By the end of the semester, we had created a “woodshop” where all of our heads, hearts and hands were honored and engaged.

Although I no longer teach in a high school classroom, the four lessons continue to be relevant. In large organizations where we work, they come into play again and again. Leaders need to become aware of who they “see” at work. They must develop a clear understanding of what it means to be a member of the enterprise. Engagement and collaboration forges a sense of ownership and excitement.

And that sets the stage for the magical act of creation.


We’ve been grappling with the fact that truth-telling is often seen as a radical act in our organizations and trying to figure out why that should be so. In our last post, we listed compelling and seductive reasons for NOT telling the truth. This week, we are listing benefits that come from telling the truth.

Top 20 Reasons for Telling the Truth

1.     It forces me to be honest with myself
2.     Establishes credibility and trust
3.     It shows people what I see and how I truly feel
4.     I don’t have to remember what stories/lies I told before
5.     Helps me confront harsh realities rather than fear or ignore them
6.     Sends a message of respect and caring
7.     Helps me create a world I can believe in
8.     Demonstrates taking accountability for my actions
9.     Honors reality
10.  Sets an example for others
11.  Creates opportunities for intimacy and true connection
12.  Bolsters self-confidence
13.  It honors the fact that you choose how you respond to circumstances
14.  Helps us discover ways to live together constructively
15.  Guides my actions to a life of integrity
16.  Defies social convention
17.  Liking myself is more important than whether you like me
18.  Is an expression of my freedom
19.  Creates consistency and alignment
20.  Makes relationships more meaningful

Why do you think it is so difficult to tell the truth? And what are your reasons for telling the truth?


As part of our exploration of “telling the truth”, and why it’s often seen as a radical act in organizations, we brainstormed a list of why telling the truth could seem like a bad idea.

Here are our  Top 20 Reasons to Avoid Telling the Truth:

1.     Our relationship might change or crumble if we tell each other the truth

2.     It is uncomfortable and anxiety-producing

3.     I don’t think you need, or deserve, to know the truth

4.     You might not like me if I tell the truth

5.     It would force me to admit I am wrong

6.     I’ve learned people don’t really like to hear the truth

7.     It could put my job or career at risk

8.     Avoiding the truth is a social convention that helps us get along better

9.     The truth could put someone in harm’s way

10.  I don’t want to admit to, or live with, a harsh reality

11.  We might not agree on what “the truth” is

12.  Relationships, organizations and institutions don’t really support truth-telling

13.  Telling the truth would compromise a promise to keep someone’s secret

14.  It might mean I won’t get what I want

15.  Feelings could get bruised (mine or yours)

16.  I want to control you by manipulating the truth

17.  Last time I told the truth, it just got me in trouble

18.  Why should I do it when no one else does?

19.  I don’t think you can handle the truth

20.  The truth is unknowable, so what difference does it make?

What did we miss? Are any of these your favorites?

Next time, we’ll share our Top 20 list of Reasons to Tell the Truth


When we talk to people about the rewards of telling the truth as a business practice, it is common for reactions to include fear, suspicion, and skepticism. In the context of most organizations, “telling the truth” almost always has a negative connotation.

How have we managed to create organizations where “telling the truth” is seen as a radical act? Why do people consider it as unpleasant as administering a dose of castor oil?

We had an “aha!” moment that shed light on these questions during a recent conversation with our friend and colleague Mark Levy, author of  Accidental Genius. We asked for his reaction to our most recent newsletter, which included advice for “A Better Way to Deliver Difficult News.” His initial feedback: “That advice is refreshingly harsh.”

Harsh? Ouch. Sometimes the truth hurts.

It shouldn’t have surprised us, really. Other people have been known to describe our message that way without the “refreshingly” modifier.

As our conversation progressed, Mark backpedaled, saying a better description is “unapologetically honest.”  He said he understood why asking people to “live the experience of truth” would be a concept business people might turn from.

“It’s not like your writing about ‘The Secret,’ and telling people they can get anything they want if they just visualize,” Mark said. “Part of the reason I said ‘unapologetically honest’ is because I am always apologizing for telling the truth.”

That sparked an animated and illuminating conversation about what spurs the impulse to apologize for being honest. We had a revelation — people never apologize for telling the truth unless they are uncomfortable telling it, or they think it is something that might be difficult to hear.

Suppose someone begins a conversation with “Can I tell you the truth?” What happens? Typically, the response is a step back. People brace themselves. They look for something to hold onto so the force of hearing something unpleasant won’t knock them flat.

Nobody requests permission to tell the truth (or apologizes for it) if the message is: “I think you’re a terrific leader.” They don’t think twice about delivering a truthful “I really appreciate all the extra hours you’ve been putting in to make this project successful.”

But when the truth is difficult — “things aren’t going so well” or “we need more from you” — people are reluctant to deliver it. And that raises another difficult issue: People are often equally unwilling to hear the truth.

Our work is based on helping clients develop organizations where people can tell each other the truth and understand the business reasons for doing so. Perhaps we should invest equal energy in developing an ability to hear the truth — even if it doesn’t feel good. Even if it evokes fear. Even if it demands reflection and self-awareness.

For the next few weeks, we will continue to explore the organizational cost and benefits, risks and rewards of “telling the truth” from our perspective.  And we hope you’ll be willing to hear us.

NOTE: We’d really like to hear your stories about truth telling. Relate a time when telling the truth felt too risky, and how it turned out. Or an example of when you told the truth even in the face of your fear. What happened?