How to Speak Truth Graciously

During World War II, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower commanded history’s most powerful military force. Under his leadership, the Allied Forces liberated Europe. But even as supreme commander, Eisenhower couldn’t simply issue dictums from on high. He needed to hold a complicated alliance together, balancing the competing demands of strong-willed individuals such as Churchill, Roosevelt, Montgomery and Patton. Eisenhower defined the D-Day invasion strategy amid much contentious debate by leading a fair decision process, then making the final decision himself. But he did more than that. He reached closure by breaking the complex issue down into manageable parts. Over five months, the group gradually arrived at decisions regarding landing dates, bombing strategy, the use of airborne troops, and other crucial details. Eisenhower navigated contention by searching for agreement on key facts, assumptions, and decision criteria. He brought the group along gradually, building on areas of common ground. And when he declared a matter closed, it stayed closed. He created a culture of Truth Telling, but he did it in a fair and methodic way.



Often we are offered two extremes: on one side is the “Let’s not hurt anyone’s feelings, we need to be peacemakers,” and on the other side is “we need to “tell people how it is.”   God turns both of these ideas upside down. He shows us that both extremes are inadequate.  He reveals a gracious way to be truthful… And a Truthful way to be gracious.  This is so upside down because those two words seem to be in opposition, but an upside down leader can weave them both together by learning to speak the RIGHT WORDS at the RIGHT TIME, in the RIGHT WAY.  Let’s begin by looking at how important and difficult it can be to get the right words.


In his book, Why Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes for an Answer, Michael Roberto tells the story of John F. Kennedy. In 1961, he authorized US support for the Bay of Pigs invasion, an attempt by 1,400 Cuban exiles to overthrow Fidel Castro. It proved catastrophic. Kennedy later asked his advisers, “How could I have been so stupid?”  The team didn’t lack intelligence. But its decision making process was deeply flawed. Veteran CIA officials advocated forcefully for the invasion. They filtered the information that Kennedy saw, excluding officials who might have exposed the plan’s weaknesses. The president and cabinet often referred to the CIA “experts” downplaying their own reservations.   Afterward, Kennedy completely overhauled his foreign policy decision-making process. He directed his advisers to abandon protocol and deference during meetings. He urged advisers not to participate as department representatives, but as “skeptical generalists.” He invited lower level advisers into subgroups to assess alternatives. He assigned close confidants as “devil’s advocates.”  He chose not to attend preliminary meetings to encourage free discussion.   He needed a “culture of truth telling.  The conclusion of the book is that leaders need to create environments where we can have access to our followers and colleagues contrasting opinions. We need to get access to the RIGHT WORDS.


Why is this? Well Solomon, a king in the Bible who was a leader, international financier, architect, and decision maker says it this way:

2 The wrath of a king is like the roaring of a lion;  Whoever provokes him to anger sins against his own life.   3 It is honorable for a man to stop striving, Since any fool can start a quarrel.

Solomon notes that ticking off the boss is a bad idea. It’s like awakening a lion. To provoke someone who has power over you puts your own life or job at risk.  Now this is common sense.  Only a “fool” starts a quarrel with his leader.    The proverbs are called “observed wisdom” because they are realities anyone can observe. They are principles that everyone can see.  So herein lies the problem. How does a king, a leader, a mom, a dad, get access to the truth about your son, your teenager daughter, your employees, and your company, when the current of the river of information flows against bringing the “RIGHT WORDS” before you?


Solomon tells us that as leaders we need to find wise men of integrity who will not foolishly quarrel, BUT are RIGHTEOUS and have INTEGRITY, and who will tell us the truth.

6 Most men will proclaim each his own goodness,  But who can find a faithful man?   7 The righteous man walks in his integrity;

Are we as leaders creating the environment and building relationships where we have people who are “RIGHT” eous and will speak “RIGHT” words to us.   Solomon notes that most people speak only to “proclaim their own goodness.” Loyalty and faithfulness are desirable qualities, but not everyone who claims to have them actually does. In fact faithfulness is usually missing. Keeping one’s word and being loyal to one’s commitments are important. We need to surround ourselves with people who will speak truth to promote not their own, but instead OUR collective goodness, even if it means bringing us news we don’t want to hear.



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posted February 2, 2012 at 1:50 pm

The wrath of the king doesn’t matter very much when he does not have a kingdom left. The Bible says pretty clearly what happens to a king when he roars too much. The other ten tribes said, “Ok, we’re out of here.”

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posted February 12, 2012 at 10:14 pm

When I saw the title of your blog I immediately thought about a saying I heard once that says that nagging is the right thing said at the wrong time. In addition I always think it is a good idea to know how to speak scripture witout saying it as it quotes from the Bible. It just sounds like wisdom.

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Brian R Shipman

posted March 2, 2012 at 12:10 am

Brian Shipman
I’m reminded of a time in my youth when it seemed people went out of their way to find common ground with each other. I’m not kidding. I’m 48 years old and I remember very well my Dad’s army buddies choosing sides between Goldwater and Kennedy (most of them went for Barry) and having fantastic long lasting discussions on issues ranging from race to foreign policy. Ideas and opinions flowed as freely as the liquor and both were exchanged with smiles and laughter. The group was a mixture of Southern Baptist, Catholics and Atheist and no topic was taboo for this group including religion. They were always brought back by the things they had in common, each other and service to country.

I’m also reminded me of a lesson we had last week in my ethics class regarding religion. It covered J. Vernon Jenson and his six ethical standards shared by the seven major religions on our planet. Truthfulness, do not slander, do not dishonor sacred persons, do not demean others, aim to earn trust and help improve others appears to be the standards of all major religions. I found it’s also the common ground between the seven major religions and atheism. So, why do we have religion again?

Brian Shipman
Drury University
Masters Candidate

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