Exploring the origins, ethics and future of changemaking

Speaking truth to power

In Power on July 25, 2012 at 9:22 pm

Over the past few years I have worked with and met a number of social entrepreneurs. I have been struck by how many have come into the work that they do through perceiving injustice, inequity or inefficiency elsewhere. Most social entrepreneurs I know are not new to ‘doing good’ – it is in their blood. For many they have committed their lives and been working for years trying different approaches to creating change or making a better world.

A striking number have recounted to me experiences they have had in previous jobs at non-profit organisations or the corporate sector where they perceived a genuine problem. The problems people have shared have been very diverse, including misaligned strategy, poor spending, workplace bullying, mismanagement, ego-based leadership and perhaps most alarmingly, an unwillingness to listen to contrary or negative feedback. Sometimes these problems create harmful organisations or programs, and other times just keep the organisation in a place of mediocrity; locked away from fully achieving greatness or their mission.

Many social entrepreneurs I have come across have actually first attempted to create change, innovate or establish new initiatives within these existing organisations. They have often experienced the resistance that comes from a system trying to protect itself, and not allowing new information to come in. Many have also experienced not being heard when trying to express counter views or challenge authority when they witness unethical behaviour in leadership.

I could not even count how many people I know who have felt that they have had no other option than to leave the organisation as they have been unable to create change there. In some cases, their departure has not been their choice. The information and perceptions they have had and were unable to share would have potentially saved the organisations they worked for a great deal of money, their brand and created a more aligned strategy. If they could somehow speak truth to power, their experience and the impact of the organisation could have been changed.

For me, one of the reasons that people find themselves in this position is because they lack the skills and confidence to deal with and speak to power. By ‘…power’ I refer most often to people in positions of authoritative power (Board Directors, CEO’s, management), and by ‘speaking truth to…’ I mean the ability to give feedback and name what the individual perceives as going on.

I do not write this with any judgement or criticism, I write simply as an observation. I too have been in positions where I have felt unheard or unable to speak effectively ‘my truth’ to people in more senior roles to me. I have also experienced being in positions of authority (CEO, senior management, Board Director) and probably caused pain for people in terms of them not feeling like they could voice certain views with me.

Understanding power, resolving ones relationship with it and being able to work effectively with power is bloody difficult. This is not an easy journey at all. The reason many people find it difficult or lack the confidence is that they have been burnt in their past (earlier life or past-life) by the misuse of power by others. The consequences can sometimes be incredibly painful, and it is totally understandable that people avoid situations where they would need to experience it again.

I have one friend who was until recently the CEO of a major charity. This charity was significant in size, budget and reputation, and had a number of challenges including unethical and misaligned leadership at the Board. This behaviour and practice was not obvious to everyone, but certainly a strong number of staff and the community had expressed their being disenfranchised with the organisation’s governance. The CEO had a choice of whether to speak against it, or play along with their power games and behaviour. She chose to speak against it, which was an enormously courageous act. The consequence was that she was forced to step down from her post, representing a significant loss to the organisation and her personally. Positive results did come out of it too, including the Board being forced to look at the way it governed. The courage of this CEO to speak truth to power led to a startling turnaround for that organisation.

For me the single most striking problem in the ‘doing good’ or non-profit world is our understanding of and ability to deal with power. So much importance is placed on entrepreneurship, innovation and creating new change. Our ability, willingness and courage to shift existing organisations or initiatives to more ethical, aligned and positively impactful positions is critical. Otherwise we find ourselves in the position whereby creating new good only perpetuates the existing bad. We are not actually transforming that which is at worst harmful or otherwise just mediocre, into that which may be great.

A wise colleague of mine Beth Worrall champions the role of intrapreneurs within existing organisations or systems. Beth taught me a lot about the important role that individual employees within larger systems can play. When these employees work effectively with power, their impact internally and externally can be huge – even from the most ‘junior’ roles.

Whether we are committed to sticking out the journey in our existing workplaces or moving into new ventures, our willingness and ability to work with power is critical. Perhaps I will come back to this in a later post, but it starts with first seeking to understand ourselves and our own current relationships with power. This is challenging and can surface stuff about ourselves that we perhaps don’t want to face. I know for me that journey has been difficult, but one that hopefully in the end will bring me closer to being a better changemaker.

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  1. Hi great post, and definitely a major issue in the not-for-proift sector. I personally have become very disenchanted with the sector because of this. However I have found it was not an problem of lack of confidence but more of an issue with the response to new ideas from seriously incompetent or untrained senior management impacting negatively on organisations. When I have spoken up and raised issues or brought new ideas to managment I have been faced with apathy or fear or on one occasion a similar situation to your CEO and been asked to leave. Change involves risk taking and too many organisations are scared to analyse their mission and impact and take risks to transform. It is a key reason why I have seen many capable and passionate staff return to the corporate sector and become disheartened with the charity sector in general.

    • Hi Sarah, thanks for your thoughtful response to the post. I am interested in what you learned or any advice you might have for people in these positions. As you say, it involves risk taking and that can be both scary and difficult.
      My sense is also that this is an issue not only within the charity sector, but also within the Public and Private Sectors. I wonder if we have higher expectations of charities (or lower expectations of for-profit businesses) in this regard, or that because people who work for non-profits care so deeply about the mission, the emotional response to it is even bigger.
      Would love to hear your thoughts.
      Cheers, Benny

      • Hi Benny. I agree that we do have higher expectations of charities and people do care deeply about working there. They also have the feeling often that they have sacrificed something (e.g. salary ) by working in the not-for-profit sector and therefore want to see results. But I have also found, especially in smaller charities, that many people work there because it is an easy option. There is little accountability or pressure to meet KPIs and senior staff are often not qualified for their roles or committed and able to assess their performance and be passionate leaders.
        My advice to people in these positions is generally to try the best they can to improve working conditions and help the organisation develop. If this is unsuccessful then move on, either back to the for profit sector and do volunteering or donate to fulfil your social conscience or move into another, more progressive charity or into the new area of social enterprises which are all about risk taking and results. If they feel like they are working for a charity which isnt doing the best it can to benefit its recipients and deliver to its donors then they shouldnt continue there as they’ll just become disillusioned with charities in general. There are so many great things being done in the charity or social enterprise sector that they can become involved in which are much more rewarding.
        Sarah

  2. […] telling, power and courageous leadership In a recent blog ‘speaking truth to power’ Benny Callaghan (@bennycallaghan) referred to the lived experience of those who identify within an […]

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