Proverbs for Leadership or I’m Not Bossy
“Truth will set you free”; “Speak the truth in love”; “Speak truth to power”; These three well known phrases are the foundation of the book, Transparency: How Leaders Create a Culture of Candor. Transparency is made up of three essays written by Warren Bennis, Daniel Goleman, James O’Toole. Their goal is to encourage leaders to curate a “culture of candor” (or living proverbs as I would say) in whatever organizations they find themselves. The author’s premise is the health and longevity of the organization is positively impacted if leaders at the top of the food chain create a safe space for employees to speak truth, that which could be considered negative, without fear of repercussions.
Our focus reading is Chapter two, entitled, “Speaking Truth to Power” written by James O’Toole. O’Toole offers poignant stories from his consulting work of how hubris of CEO’s of large corporations, like Cowels Media and Enron have led to the downfall of the person and the company. He deftly makes his point that leaders who are unwilling to hear the hard truths and refuse to chart a different course because it reveals they were wrong, curate a culture of “group think”; employees are unwilling to take the risk to speak truth to power for fear of verbal abuse, punishment, or being fired. This fear leads to risk averse choices. Although Friedman’s call for self-differentiation in toxic systems is not the point in the essay, it highlights O’Toole’s argument that an unhealthy organization is a result of leaders unwilling to be challenged in rethinking purpose or responsibilities. This echoes Friedman’s hypothesis that leaders operating out of hubris reveal character of invasiveness and lack of integrity; an undifferentiated leader promotes a system that has no nerve.
O’Toole references his co-authors in his essay regarding an important dynamic in creating a culture of candor; leaders have the responsibility to invite dissenting voices to be heard and to intentionally listen deeply. I found his story about President Gerald Ford as a consummate model very inspiring. President Ford laid aside the typical leadership model, as shared by O’Toole, New York Times columnist Frank Rich noted that the former President “encouraged dissent in his inner circle. He had no enemies, no ego, no agenda, no ideology, no concern for his image.”  The President understood that strength in being well-differentiated allowed him to listen intently to others in order to hear hard truths.
Reading O’Toole’s essay brought to mind echoes of a number of verses from Proverbs. I remember the summer before I started this doctoral journey I began reading and meditating on Proverbs. Here is one of my journal entries:
Proverbs 12:15-20 The Message (MSG)
15 Fools are headstrong and do what they like; wise people take advice. 16 Fools have short fuses and explode all too quickly; the prudent quietly shrug off insults. 17 Truthful witness by a good person clears the air, but liars lay down a smoke screen of deceit. 18 Rash language cuts and maims, but there is healing in the words of the wise. 19 Truth lasts; lies are here today, gone tomorrow. 20 Evil scheming distorts the schemer; peace-planning brings joy to the planner.
Dwelling with Proverbs 12 again. These verses convict me….how often I have been a fool. Being a fool is so easy; it doesn’t require much effort. Relying on God’s wisdom instead of my “wisdom” takes intentional openness; it requires tenacity in effort. These days I’m constantly praying God pours out God’s wisdom into my heart. I’m attempting to have a teachable spirit….to not cling so tightly to my knee jerk ego response to be right (and my ego need to have everyone agree that I’m right) welcoming new information into my brain requires I am open to broadening world view and understanding. It means an openness to admitting I don’t know it all and I don’t always have it right. And to be a peace-planner requires intentionality to really listen to those with whom I disagree. I pray again today for God’s wisdom to love the knowledge God wants to offer.
Going back through my journal entries I can see that God was already working on me regarding leadership. I am learning the nuances of healthy leadership that require a transformation of the “I’m not bossy” character. Curating and nurturing a culture of candor is a foundational map. In some ways I have come half circle. Proverbs, Friedman, and O’Toole paint a map of the importance of well-differentiated self that can be free to speak truth to power in love while curating a heart to listen.
Proverbs 18:15 The Message
15 Wise men and women are always learning, always listening for fresh insights.
“The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand. We listen to reply,” Stephen Covey.
 Bennis, Warren, Daniel Goleman, James O’Toole, and Patricia Ward Biederman. Transparency: How Leaders Create a Culture of Candor. 1st edition. Jossey-Bass, 2008. Preface page 9.
 Ibid,. Page 10,
 Ibid. Page 50-51, 60-61.
 Ibid. Page 52, 58.
 Ibid. Page 59.
 Ibid. Page 52.
Friedman, Edwin H., and Peter Steinke. A Failure of Nerve, Revised Edition: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. 10th Anniversary edition. New York: Church Publishing, 2017. Page 174.
 Bennis, Warren, Daniel Goleman, James O’Toole, and Patricia Ward Biederman. Transparency: How Leaders Create a Culture of Candor. 1st edition. Jossey-Bass, 2008. Page 87.
9 responses to “Proverbs for Leadership or I’m Not Bossy”
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Nicole: Nice connections to Proverbs; that book has so many great nuggets of truth that leaders should consult it frequently. It isn’t easy building a culture of transparency but this brief paper provides great insights. I especially liked his points to keep in mind when we do speak truth to power. “The messenger must be willing to pay a price…” Not easy to accept but it’s true and it requires moral courage.
As Friedman reminds us that sabotage is a sign you are leading well.
Great blog. I too appreciate hearing that about Ford… I had no idea, but long to grow in that kind of leadership. I appreciated your honesty and vulnerability in how you have (or not) modeled this. Self-awareness! It is how we grow. Thanks for modeling that to me and others.
Thank you Eric. Sometimes I have to speak truth to power when I am the power to whom I speak.
Nicole, thanks for sharing part of your personal leadership journey from your journal in this nice post. You write about the challenges of leadership versus being “bossy.” Personally, I’ve never known you to be the latter and only known you to be the former. A question: do you think the kind of dynamic that allows for truth to be spoken to power are more challenging for certain leaders more than others, or do you think all face the same challenge? I’m thinking of a few comments three of us made on the interview video and you sharing that you’re an Enneagram 8. It’s just another personality profile but it does point to a strong leadership drive and being comfortable being in charge. What do you think O’Toole might say to an “8?”
Thank you Roy.
Yes I am an 8. And I think O’Toole would warm me of the tendencies of an 8 when not well adjusted…I can be tyrannical and intimidating ” become addicted to the pursuit of power, and will destroy anything blocking their way with fury”
But I do believe that 8’s can more readily speak truth to power by the nature of being a challenger.
btw…Eight is a much more common type among men, representing only 12% of women compared to 18% of men. So it’s normal that I am considered bossy.
Nicole, thank you for refreshing us on how Friedman intertwines with this article. I can relate to the girl in your meme, “I have skills” that have often been interpreted as bossy. I’m curious to hear how you are using refined listening skills and empowering parishioners in their involvement in congregation decisions?
Denise I am leaning way into my non-ennegram 8 self. I am usually a natural intuitive so I really on that aspect to listen between the lines and work to communicate to others I authentically what to hear. Some one said to me a couple of weeks ago, after giving a dissenting opinion on a book we were reading, “I am not trying to be oppositional.” My response was, “I didn’t take you as oppositional. I am really interested in hearing peoples thoughts.” She is a millennial and is sensitive to judgement and she thought I was taking offense even though I had not countered her thoughts. She is not used to people taking what she says as anything but oppositional. I am working to curate trust. Not sure if this answers your question.
Nicole: Have you found the distinctions you speak of regarding ‘bossy’ to be exaggerated as a female leader as compared to your male counterparts over the years?