Everyone’s a Leader
The author of “Speaking Truth to Power”, James O’Toole, received his Doctorate in Social Anthropology from Oxford University and spent much of his career teaching, researching, and writing in the areas of leadership, ethics, and corporate culture. While he wrote many books, in 1965, his book Vanguard Management was named “one of the best business and economic books” by Business Week.
O’Toole introduces the concept of speaking truth to power and the challenges it creates by recounting Sophocles’ fourth-century play Antigone. In it, King Creon believed it was a sign of great weakness to listen to the opinions of those he led and saw it as a threat to power. However, the son Haemon challenged his thinking. He said, “A man, though wise, should never be ashamed of learning more… if I may give advice, I’d say it would be best if men were born perfect in wisdom, but failing this (which often fails) it can be no dishonor to learn from others when they speak good sense.” Haemon equated asking questions to a form of learning, but also a practice of wise and influential leadership. O’Toole used this example to demonstrate that it is a leader’s job to both listen to those they lead and create a culture in which there can be open, candid communication among leaders and followers. 
I found the article to be an insightful read to cast vision that effective leaders are those who readily listen and seek the opinion and feedback of those they lead. During the spring of 2022, I facilitated a leadership curriculum prototype with individuals from my low-income community. One of the participants, I will call him Ryan, came to our organization several years back as he was moving from Billings to rebuild his life as he and his baby mama were trying to leave behind a life of addiction. Securing a place to rent through our organization, our property manager was then able to help Ryan secure a job with a local restoration company owned by a sincere Christ-follower who was a felon for murder in gang-related violence while he was a teen. Sparing many details, Ryan’s life is no longer the same. The opportunity to secure quality, affordable housing (despite his criminal background) provided Ryan an excellent job with upward mobility and the capacity to build a healthy community. I invited Ryan to participate in my four-week leadership course as I was convinced he was a leader with much untapped potential. After a class on “identity,” Ryan acted on the suggested homework to read and evaluate what Genesis 1-3 had to say about identity and leadership. I will never forget his email to me as he said, “Eric, I am relatively new to the Bible and what it means to follow Jesus, but I have read these chapters several times this week and I am convinced more than ever that as people made in God’s image, we are all leaders.” I was blown away by this response as I will confess that my definition of leadership was far too narrow! Ryan taught me an important theological and leadership principle that day: we are all leaders within our scope of influence.
Why am I sharing about Ryan regarding O’Toole’s article? I think this article carries great weight, not just for CEOs, Executive Directors, and Pastors, but all people, for we are all leaders! For many years I have had the privilege of mentoring a group of guys bi-weekly. For our meeting this week, I asked them to read this article to discuss the principles it has for us as leaders. It is important to add that my working definition of leadership is that “leaders leverage their influence for the common good of followers and future generations.” So, in conjunction with Ryan’s epiphany that we are all leaders, we all exercise influence in various spheres, such as our home, community, work, and church. I was encouraged by the insights these brothers gleaned. Allow me to share a few:
- As healthy leaders, in whatever capacity that means, we should be able to share our concerns with others, as well as receive critiques and disagreements from others.
- There seems to be a strong connection to Servant Leadership as leaders who seek to listen well to their followers. It especially benefits those who otherwise might be marginalized and provides them a voice.
- As noted by O’Toole, the feminine virtues of leaders demonstrate the importance of balance between what traditionally has been considered masculine and feminine. We need both virtues present to lead well. It isn’t one or the other, but both.
- Not only does this impact my role at work, but it also impacts how I parent. Do I allow and invite conflict and differing opinions from my children? This article challenged me to parent better.
- Conflict is necessary, and it can have positive outcomes if managed well.
I will conclude by stating that this is an article I plan to read again and use as a resource to equip those I have the privilege of working alongside. Having mentioned the article to Ryan, he said, “You know I am on board for anything on leadership. Send it!” The result of my doctoral project is a leadership development curriculum called Unearthing Leadership: A Leadership Development Curriculum to Equip Individuals for the Flourishing of Communities. Since I have limited space for this blog, I will highlight four lessons directly related to the principles taught by O’Toole. They are Courageous Leadership, Conflict Management, Effective Listening, and The Value of Team. These principles have been woven together over the past two years through the various books we have read, digested, and meditated upon.
 “James O’ Toole | USC Marshall,” accessed November 27, 2022, https://www.marshall.usc.edu/james-o-toole.
 James O’Toole, “Speaking Truth to Power: A White Paper,” last modified October 15, 2015, accessed November 15, 2022, https://www.scu.edu/ethics/focus-areas/business-ethics/resources/speaking-truth-to-power-a-white-paper/.
10 responses to “Everyone’s a Leader”
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Eric, how do you think this reading will influence how you approach leadership and openness to alternative views and approaches?
I have been giving your question some thought but am not sure how to answer your question at this point. By blink is that as leaders we are to engage and influence for the common good of all. As a Christ-follower, I have a sense as to what that ultimate calling is, but the way in which we are to engage people of different beliefs, convictions, cultures, etc. is very different. That said, perhaps the most profound way I know how to be open to others is to be inquisitive, curious, ask questions, and be a learner of people, how they think, cultures, practices, etc. In the end, the Holy Spirit will do His work and reveal His truth. That said, my role is not to be either God or the Holy Spirit, but a mere messenger who seeks to love God and love others fully, just as He has loved us.
Great post Eric. I got a lot out of this short paper, too. So insightful and only 12 pages long. I think I will return to it again and again. I also might read one of O’Toole’s books that he wrote over the years. Have you read any of his longer works? He’s been prolific throughout his career.
I have not read any of his books, not was his name familiar to me. However, I very much appreciated his way of thinking. If you read some of his books and they are worthwhile, please let me know!
Eric, thanks for sharing Ryan’s story and his insights about leadership in this great post. You highlight his sense of leadership in our spheres of influence. Do you think the principle of “speaking truth to power” applies equally in every sphere or are there unique aspects of that principle to those with leadership positions within organizations? If so, what are the differences to those in an organization versus, for example, a leader in a family?
Good questions. My quick thoughts: it all has to do with culture, whether that be of a family, church, or organization. I imagine the “purpose” of the group also makes a difference. If you and I are tasked with working together to build a house, that will be different that you and I being tasked to engage a community in meaningful ways. That said, I imagine the speaking truth in power varies on all those variables.
Eric: Another great post. I really like this analogy you use of building a house in the comment response. In your initial onboarding and diving into your new role, have you found that your role of speaking truth to different powers based on the folks you are working with has been an easy transition or present its own set of challenges?
Eric, thank you for sharing such a great example of learning from outside the typical circle of leadership. Maybe you could explain further how you have or endeavor to include more outsiders to inform your leadership?
Of course, for the curriculum I wrote, I was informed through various stakeholder groups (many of the folks were not directly involved with my work at CLDI, nor were they followers of Jesus). Additionally, I try and watch and observe those around me and learn from those I can. It might be I am learning some great community development principle from someone working in a different context and different field, but there is still much that can be learned and applied to my context.
Thank you Eric for sharing the story of “Ryan”. …it’s very poignant.
As you continue the work on your project, I wonder if you have worked in a “review” process that allows those who are in the training to speak truth to power (being you who created the curriculum)? How do compare and contrast “Speaking Truth to Power” with “An Everyone Culture” in regards to creating space for people to trust the system?