How Leaders Create a Culture of Candor
Authors: Warren Bennis, Daniel Goleman, and James O'Toole


It would be hard to find three more prestigious writers on leadership authoring one book. It consists of three related articles reinforcing the necessity for being open and honest and providing recommendations for building an organization where this can occur.

Transparency includes candor, integrity, honesty, ethics, clarity, full disclosure, legal compliance, and other things that allow us to deal fairly with one another. Trust and transparency are linked. Today there is no place to hide.

Key Chapter: 1. Creating a Culture of Candor

The free flow of information within an organization is like the central nervous system: effectiveness depends on it. Organizational candor maximizes the probability for success. The information an organization needs may be located anywhere, including the outside. Complete transparency is not possible or desirable. However, secretiveness is often simply reflexive. "Openness happens only when leaders insist on it." (8) Leaders should at least aspire to a policy of 'no secrets.'

"As a rule, genuine leaders who encourage the honest sharing of information create organizations that have reputations for candor. Able to draw on public good will, such organizations tend to weather scrutiny more easily when things go wrong." (20) "Because most companies cover up their mistakes instead of learning from them, systemic flaws in information flow tend to remain to do their damage another day." (23)

The perception of leader as demigod deters followers from telling them the awkward truth. The wise leader seeks broad counsel. "But leaders have to do more than ask for the counsel of others. They have to hear it." (26) "…whatever they hear from their direct reports has probably been heavily edited, if only to make the message more palatable and to make the messenger appear more valuable. And so wise leaders find ways to get information raw." (28)

"In most organizations, hidden ground rules govern what can be said and what cannot. One key question that every leader should ask to encourage candor: Is it safe to bring bad news to those at the top?" "Leaders must show that speaking up is not just safe but mandatory…." "But failing to hear critical information, whoever delivers it, may put the entire enterprise at risk." (32)

Organizations, like families, sometimes have "vital lies," truths that are too threatening or painful to be spoken. We learn what to not notice and what not to say. Speaking the unspeakable may threaten our job or the organization. "Conspiracies of silence are enormously damaging and all but universal." (36)

Those at the top often think they know more than they do. Bad news gets filtered out. The higher leaders rise, the less honest feedback they get. "And so top leaders easily lose touch with the ways others see them and may remain poor listeners, abrasive, tuned out, or otherwise clueless about their own limitations." (38)

"The best way for leaders to start information flowing freely in their organizations is to set a good example. They must accept, even welcome, unsettling information." (42)

Key Insights

Both a candid speaker and a receptive listener are required for ethical transparency. (50)

All organizations have fundamental unexamined myths. The more basic or potent the assumption, the less likely it is to be challenged. "Managers in companies with healthy cultures continually challenge old assumptions, rethink basic premises, question, revise, and unlearn outmoded truths." (55)

When trust is missing, employees will not speak truth to power because they are unsure how the leaders will respond. Trust is an essential ingredient to effectiveness but most leaders do not know how to create a bond of trust. "Trust cannot be created quickly. In fact, trust is the most elusive and fragile aspect of leadership. Trust…is the strongest glue binding people together in groups. Whenever followers are asked to rank what they require of leaders, trust is always at the top of the list. But leaders can't provide trust directly to followers. Instead, trust is an outcome of all a leader's accumulated actions and behaviors. When leaders are candid, open, consistent, and predictable in their dealings with followers, the result will almost always be a condition of trust." (61-2)

"In practice, then, trust is created by the behavior of leaders toward followers: When leaders treat followers with respect, followers respond with trust. Leaders show their respect by always treating followers as ends in themselves-and never as means to achieve their own ego or power needs, or even to achieve the legitimate goals of the organization. Leaders demonstrate their respect by giving followers relevant information, by never using or manipulating them, and by including them in the making of decisions that affect them." (62-3)

"In essence, trust is hard to earn, easy to lose, and, once lost, nearly impossible to regain." (63)

Three required steps for integrity:
  1. "Discerning what is right and what is wrong
  2. Acting on what you have discerned, even at personal cost
  3. Saying openly that you are acting on your understanding of right and wrong" (72)

"We all have a moral obligation to speak truth to power when the actions of leaders are harmful to our organization, to people inside and outside the organization, and to the leaders themselves." (83)

"The behavior of the late President Gerald Ford serves as a positive reminder of what great leadership entails." "He had no enemies, no ego, no agenda, no ideology, no concern for his image." (87, quoting Frank Rich) "Ford's traits of leadership are not the ones advocated in most business schools today, where 'take-charge decisiveness' is prized over the ability to listen." (87)

"The digital revolution has made transparency inevitable…" (94) "Now anyone with Internet access can take on the most powerful institutions on earth…" (95) "The potential power of a billion Chinese citizens with internet access and cell phone cameras cannot be ignored, even by a government that has a long history of holding information close." (99)

"Knowledge is still power. But as knowledge becomes more widely distributed, so does the power it generates. The very idea of leadership is beginning to change as power is democratized." (108)

"The same forces are fast making privacy a thing of the past." (110) The lack of privacy can be annoying, embarrassing, and dangerous. (111)

"Because the Internet is open to everyone, it tends to be a great leveler. But when all voices have the same force, it is harder and harder to identify those who have the training, experience, and wisdom that make them truly worth listening to." (113) Bloggers have 'a megaphone to the world.' However eccentric, shallow, even banal the blogger's message is, it has the ability to shape public opinion…." (118) Organizations must react to them whether they want to or not. It is required to manage your reputation.

Information committed to the Internet is there forever. Be careful that you don't say and do things that harm your reputation. On the Internet propaganda often masquerades as fact. As a delivery system, the Internet doesn't care whether it carries truth or fiction.

Jossey-Bass, 2008, 130 pp., ISBN 978-0-470-27876-5

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Book Notes by David Mays
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