Truth-telling in the Trenches of Leadership

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“We have just hit our goal and we’re still going strong!”

That is leadership truth-telling at its easiest.

“It appears we will miss the mark, and my own miscalculation is partially responsible.”

That’s leadership truth-telling at its toughest, and at its most important. Because it’s when things are not going well that leaders find themselves in the trenches of leadership. And it is the ability to tell the truth from that place that sets the great leaders apart.

The trenches of leadership are when goals are not being met, when strategies are being questioned, when decisions are being second-guessed, and when teams are struggling.

If a leader can rise up and speak truth in the trenches of leadership they’ll see their leadership stock continue to rise. But it will mean proving the ability to speak truth in at least three leadership trenches:

When the truth makes you look weak

Can you stand up in front of your constituents and say, “We’re missing our numbers. We’re falling behind our plan. And I am responsible for this.”

When spoken out of genuine humility, this kind of truth-telling can project tremendous strength

When the truth makes you look fallible

The ability to say, “I don’t know how to do this; the truth is, I need your help” is one of the most profound forms of truth-telling possible. And it’s incredible how many leaders do not have the strength of character to be able to utter such words.

Some fear that to admit the need for help would make the leader appear incompetent.

But the best leaders know that, in the trenches, it’s necessary to openly acknowledge when it’s time for a little help.

When the truth makes you look wrong

Admitting mistakes is one of the hardest things for many leaders to do.

But in the trenches of leadership, saying “I was wrong” is one of the most important words a leader can utter.

Rather than making excuses or assigning blame effective leaders would rather be wrong and truthful, than to appear correct through deception.

The ability to be a truth-teller is core to the character of a strong leader.

But if you want to test your own truth-telling mettle, remember that test isn’t taken when all of the lines are going up and to the right.

You can only really take this test in the trenches.

What’s the most challenging time when you’ve had to be a truth-teller?

the author

Scott Cochrane

Lifelong learner, practitioner and coach of leadership, across more than 50 countries. Follower of Jesus, husband of Nora, grateful parent and grandparent.


  1. I once instructed a subordinate to do something and she said it was wrong but I had her do it my way anyway. The lady had been in the department since it opened and I was her new manager. She was old-school and I wanted to do some things differently and, in general, most of the changes worked. However, in this case, I was wrong. When I found out I was wrong, I immediately went to her and said, “I’m sorry” with no “buts” and told her she was right. She was gracious enough to accept my apology and from that point on, she was my biggest supporter, and still is even though she has retired. To echo what you write above, sincerity and humility in the tough times are what earn you true leadership.

  2. I love the fact that your apology came with no “buts”. As soon as I hear an “I’m sorry but”, or “I’m sorry if” I know there wasn’t a real apology there. Thanks for the helpful comment.

  3. I am supervisor of a campus police communications center. During an emergency situation, a detailed description of the suspect was sent out to faculty, staff, and students via email and text. I authorized the email and text that was sent out. Unfortunately, some of the description was seen as offensive to some students. After the incident, there was a meeting with the student body about the description. I was not on the agenda to speak or even attend the meeting. However, I went and sat in the back. The attendees were hostile and quite upset during the meeting and wanted to know who authorized the message. I stood up from the back and stated that I was responsible for the message, and did not intend it to be offensive. I was shaking because I was so afraid of what the crowd would do. But, to my surprise, they calmed down and it resulted in a very enlightening discussion.

  4. First, love the bio under your picture! “I’m sorry” is perhaps the most powerful phrase in the English language. You are right, it’s only authentic when it stands alone. So many ills could be cured with legitimate repentance.

  5. Thanks for the kind comment Rob. Further to the importance of “I’m sorry”, our culture has adopted the phrase, “I’m sorry if I offended you” as a legitimate apology. Nothing could be further from the truth. Again, thanks for contributing to the conversation.

  6. Donna, your story packs a wallop! There’s a line in the bible that says, “…and the truth shall set you free.” I think that is exactly what happened for you. I can just imagine the weight that was lifted off your shoulders when you acknowledged your role in the texts. Thanks for sharing!

  7. I completely agree and love this post! Humility in leadership is a lost art. I have had to say “Sorry” or “I’m wrong” several times at work. Once, it was my fault that a budget error occurred and I had to ‘fess up and say “Sorry” to my boss and the employee who the budget error affected. That was tough, but it strengthened our bonds as co-workers and they were very forgiving (which I find most people are.) As a leader when you admit your errors and apologize, your employees breathe a sign of relief because now they feel like it’s going to be OK if they make mistakes too.
    I actually wrote an article on apologizing at work (No Ifs or Buts!) for GovLoop about this same topic. If you’re interested; it’s here:

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