“Every Man Dies, Not Every Man Really Lives” — William Wallace, Scottish Patriot

Why is it that the higher up you go in an organization, the less freedom there is to speak your mind? Think about some of the CEOs who have gotten in trouble lately: Wells Fargo, Volkswagen, Facebook, Uber, Boeing, and Purdue Pharma just to name a few. The issues were all different, but a common theme is the Emperor thinks he has new clothes and, in fact, has no clothes. No one really told them early on what was happening. The trouble percolated and stewed and then exploded, much to the surprise of the CEOs, their Boards, the regulatory agencies, and the public. It starts with the hubris of the chief, and the culture that forms around that kind of pride and arrogance. And there is fear near the top. The result is an atmosphere that stifles honest feedback, free speech.

“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”.

What Bob Dylan is saying is that if your mortgage is paid and you have enough to retire, you can afford to say what’s on your mind. And he is really saying freedom is a state of mind. Courageous conversations have become a big business and profitable offering for consultancies. The failure of workers to speak up and say what is really on their mind is causing incalculable damage not just to their organization, but to our culture and society.

Why is it important to speak freely? I’ve made my living the past 40 years largely because people have not felt free to speak up and say what is on their mind. I get called in to “fix” or “help” straighten out the recalcitrant. The consequences have sometimes been humorous and more often heartbreaking. People get sidelined and fired because of poor communication and the failure of people to speak up and deal with the real underlying issue. The challenge is how to speak freely while at the same time being respectful and compassionate, so you don’t just come off as a jerk or worse. It starts by learning how to master your own story.