Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

May I Be Candid?

Written by: on December 1, 2022


In “Speaking Truth to Power: A White Paper,” James O’Toole addresses the risky dynamic of challenging leadership in the context of business and governmental structures. His premise argues for a “culture of candor” that demands leaders to hear the critique that is often difficult.[1] O’Toole offers ethical boundaries for leaders and those seeking to challenge the powers that be. Citing a negative and a positive example, O’Toole concludes, “managers in companies with healthy cultures were constantly willing to rethink even their most basic assumptions through a process of constructive dissent.”[2] The author clarifies the broad concept of transparency when he gives specific applications to make it real: “egalitarian access to information, not punishing those who constructively demonstrate imperial nakedness, not rewarding spurious loyalty, and empowering and rewarding principled contrarians.”[3] The author builds a strong case for the practice to benefit organizations and individuals alike. He also demonstrates the detrimental effects upon structures that did not allow truth to be spoken to those in power.

Two ideas from the article prompted ongoing thoughts in my mind. First, O’Toole contradicts the long-held male-dominant, unchallenged leadership model. In contrast, he champions “leaders who possess the “feminine” virtues of humility, inclusion, vulnerability, service to others, and respect for all people.”[4] In our first semester, Dr. Clark offered a similar critique of the strong, natural leader profile with similar descriptions of a better leadership effect. O’Toole shows his disdain for my country’s current state of leadership when he states, “Americans are getting the kind of leadership our society celebrates.”[5] This criticism aims at the independent, macho, abrasive, unopposed leader who goes it alone. Such isolated and caustic leadership works in movies but often fails elsewhere due to an unwillingness or inability to hear healthy dissent. The skewed dynamic described by the author can exist in any organization. If I had more time, I would check the correlation O’Toole makes in the business realm to the church world. I wonder if churches dominated by patriarchal leadership structures are experiencing something better, worse, or about the same as those of egalitarian structures regarding health, growth, and staff retention. I assume that there is a growing resistance to male-dominated church leadership structures.

Second, O’Toole’s argument for a culture of candor is an obvious need in many cases. The phrase “speaking truth to power” reminded me of its usage at the Desmond Tutu Museum in Cape Town. The church’s role in opposing the laws of apartheid played a crucial role in overthrowing it. Clearly, there are times when leadership needs to be critiqued, even replaced. When I started on the ministry staff, I was an associate pastor. I can remember times of sharing critique and having that dismissed. The result was disheartening. In the years I’ve served as a senior leader, I can only guess how many times I’ve led others to feel that same way. I would like to believe I’ve grown in allowing, even structuring, ways for people to critique any part of what the staff and I do. I fully accept his challenge, and I agree with his observation of reluctance on the part of leaders to hear what they do not want to hear. It is hard not to take critique personally in any context.

However, I also remember times of critique that did meet with the ethical or intentional direction O’Toole describes. Defensive leaders employ two tactics to fend off organizational dissidents: challenge their loyalty and dismiss them as malcontents.[6] As I read that, I agreed with the concern he raises, but it also reminded me of people in my own leadership experience who were advancing another vision or simply critical. John wrote in his first epistle that “they went out from us, but they were not of us.” (I John 2:19 ESV) Organizations of all kinds contain people who are not on board with the direction and seek to change it. Perhaps in their minds, they were speaking truth to power. However, I believe leadership also receives opposition described by Friedman that is produced by an anxious system, especially in times of adaptive change. The Pharisees challenged Jesus, but were not “speaking truth to power.” They sought to protect their position and power. That happens in organizations of all kinds. Tod Bolsinger quotes Ronald Heifetz’s direction to leaders, specifically leading change, the need to see the big picture and hear from people within the organization.[7] One mark of leadership with a culture of candor includes approachable leaders who genuinely listen to those with questions and concerns.

I believe O’Toole would also say that some people sometimes need to leave organizations. No article can include everything on a given topic, and the author’s intent is to help the development of healthy organizations in a way reminiscent of Leahy’s An Everyone Culture. If I could ask O’Toole one question, it would be: “in light of the need for a culture of candor, how does a leader distinguish someone legitimately speaking truth to power versus someone with a different agenda?” As O’Toole cautions about transparency behaviors, they are “easier said than done.”[8] May God grant leaders the wisdom to build organizational health and weed out organizational disease.

[1] James O’Toole, “Speaking Truth to Power: A White Paper” Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, last modified, October 15, 2015, accessed November 29, 2022, https://www.scu.edu/ethics/focus-areas/business-ethics/resources/speaking-truth-to-power-a-white-paper/.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Tod Bolsinger, Tempered Resilience (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020), 153.

[8] O’Toole, “Speaking Truth to Power.”

About the Author


Roy Gruber

Husband, father, pastor, student, and sojourner in Babylon

14 responses to “May I Be Candid?”

  1. mm Andy Hale says:


    You always pick up on things that I do not see in my reading.

    You know that the church is often a place that lacks candor, especially among staff. How do you think this reading might shape the culture you build among your team, especially when giving and receiving feedback? How might you model the way?

    • mm Roy Gruber says:

      Andy, thanks for you question. I agree with you that the church does not often create a culture of candor. With the staff, we’ve sought to create a culture of “ask anything, question anything.” The key to that working is making sure that your staff members are committed to the mission/vision. When I first got here, that was not the case. As much as we wanted to create an open culture, those committed to another vision never shared that openly. Unfortunately, that will never work. Now, with a staff unified to our mission, it works really well as people know it’s safe to dissent the majority opinion in the room. We have a staff saying: “you should be able to hear a lot from people that you know are for you.” I feel blessed to be in that environment right now.

  2. mm Eric Basye says:

    Great post, Roy. I also appreciated the challenge of the masculine form of leadership. A group of guys and I had a robust conversation about that very thing; the need to be more balanced – masculine and feminine aspects of leadership.

    If you had to summarize how your view of leadership and conflict has changed or been confirmed over the last decade, what would you say?

    • mm Roy Gruber says:

      Eric, thanks for you question. I believe my biggest growth over the last decade has been greater discernmet about who to listen to when challenge comes. There are some people we should listen to and there are critics that we should not listen to. In the past, I believe I gave too much time and opportunity for critics to slow change or forward movement. Those who are on-board and engaged in serving the mission are those from whom we should be able to hear challenge. In the past, I believed I could convince anyone if I had enough time to do so. I no longer believe that. Some people are better off supporting a mission/vision in which they believe. That’s OK and does not need to be an ugly separation. There are some “blessed subtractions” as those committed to another direction find a fit for that elsewhere.

  3. mm Troy Rappold says:

    Roy: I also remember when the phrase, “Speaking Truth to Power” was used in the Desmond Tutu museum. South Africa was a case study in doing just that in the 1980’s and 1990’s. It’s never easy but always needed. Have you ever been in that situation in your many years of ministry?

    • mm Roy Gruber says:

      Troy, thanks for you question. I cannot say that I’ve ever been in a situation nearly as important as what went down in South Africa. I do remember when political groups in our area wanted the church to endorse certain politicians and platforms. We strongly opposed that and I would not change that decision. It did lead to some critique of the church in local circles. We also just completed a sermon series about the difference of faith in the Jesus of the Bible versus some other faiths. One of the other faiths we addressed was the predominant faith in Utah, the LDS church. We contrasted beliefs and sought to “speak the truth in love.”

  4. mm Jonathan Lee says:

    Roy, thank you for your insights. I agree with your statement, leaders need “the wisdom to build organizational health and weed out organizational disease.” Have you discovered principles that is helping you to recognize organizational weeds and potentially growing dieases?

    • mm Roy Gruber says:

      Jonathan, thanks for you question. I believe the greatest principle that has helped candor has been clarifying a clear mission/vision. As people understand the direction of the church, it surfaces opposition and unifies support. Unity is a powerful force that cannot be overstated. As leaders, I believe we owe it to people to be clear about where the organization is headed. In my earlier days of pastoral leadership, I believe is avoided conflict too much. There is a price to pay for challenge, but the unity on the other side of that challenge is worth the price.

  5. mm Denise Johnson says:

    Roy, thank you for your perspective on this article. I’m curious about how you create a “culture of candor” for your staff? I am also interested in hearing more about your thoughts on making room for the female voice in your leadership?

    • mm Roy Gruber says:

      Denise, thanks for you questions. On our staff, we have a “ask anything, question anything” policy that works when a group is committed to the same mission/vision. When I first arrived here over 18 years ago, the staff was divided and that led to a lack of honesty. In contrast, today we have a staff that has vigorous and honest staff meetings where challenge and questions are the norm. That only works when people are committed to a mission/vision larger than their own area of leadership. When challenge comes, the senior leaders will model what happens next. That moment can change a culture of withholding honesty and fearing challenge. I’m fortunate to be in that open, safe environment right now. About the femine voice, I believe the best way for me to understand that is to have gifted female leaders on leadership teams. We have a 50/50 staff of men and women. We have a woman on the Management Team that supervises all staff. The church board used to be all male. We’ve changed that in the last two years and is now 4 men and 3 women. It’s not just having the femine voice present but also listening and acting on that input.

  6. mm Nicole Richardson says:

    Roy thank you for your reflection and the connections to our readings and experience at the TuTu museum. You ask about connections to the church context. I believe there are strong connections. You mention Friedman….How would you compare or contrast the usefulness of self-differentiation with character of candor? So this begs the question…I don’t know can you be candid?

    • mm Roy Gruber says:

      Denise, thanks for you questions. I believe Friedman offers a great help to the ability to create a culture of candor. When a leader is self-differentiated, the anxiety associated with conflict subsides. In my earlier years of pastoral leadership, I believe I avoided conflict too often. I’ve learned that the price paid in conflict is a small price to pay compared to the unity on the other side of that. I see so much of what Friedman says setting leaders free from the insecurities of self and position. That freedom allows leaders to pursue a mission/vision with less of self as the barrier to that pursuit. About being candid, I believe I can do that better than ever but I’m still learning when that is needed and when it’s time to do more listening than speaking candidly.

  7. Kayli Hillebrand says:

    Roy: In light of the question you would pose to O’Toole, how have you discerned between the two during your leadership over the years? Are there any clear signs when someone has a hidden agenda of sorts?

    • mm Roy Gruber says:

      Kayli, thanks for you question. The main principle that has helped me discern the difference between healthy challenge and unhealthy opposition is a clear mission/vision. Once we can get beyond the feelings of being personally attacked, assessing a person’s commitment to the direction has helped me to know if this is someone to listen to or someone advancing another mission or simply a critic. Of course, that means the responsibility of clarity about the mission rests with him/her and their team. If a leader is unclear about mission/vision, the resulting criticism is a fitting review of a lack of direction.

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