The Need for Courageous Communication

Posted On: December 12

I have just returned from Canada where I delivered several speeches and had the opportunity to spend some time with the fantastic folks at, a consulting firm that specializes in strategy execution.  Whenever I get to spend time with colleagues that also focus on helping businesses be more successful I love to ask them what sort of challenges their clients are currently facing.  In my discussions with the team at, I realized that we are all seeing a lot of the same sort of issues, but to me one stands out above all others at this particular point in time; organizations that struggle with a lack of open, honest, robust… and most importantly “courageous communication.”

If you had asked me five years ago what the number one issue most of my clients were struggling with, I would’ve told you that it was lack of clear, vivid and extremely well-communicated vision.  Today however, the number one challenge is helping leaders to be more courageous in their communication.  To me, there are four major things that a great leader must do to be a courageous communicator.

1.  Vulnerability.   Just because you’re the leader does not mean you’re supposed to have all of the answers.  A courageous leader is not afraid to be vulnerable, to say that they don’t know, that they are confused, that they need help.  Asking for help and being vulnerable is not a sign of weakness, it actually gives you strength beyond measure.

2.  Tough Conversations.  It is the role of the leader to be courageous in holding people rigorously accountable to delivering the required results and meeting the standards of the organization, without ever becoming ruthless about it.  Most leaders have a very hard time engaging in a difficult discussion about lack of performance.  Trust me, avoiding these sorts of awkward conversations does not do any favors at all for the employee who is struggling, they deserve to know that their performance is not where it needs to be and given clear direction about what they need to do in order to improve their results and retain their employment.  This reminds me of one of my favorite Jack Welch quotes, “I never fired anybody who was surprised.”

3.  Discussing the Un-discussable.   Everyone knows it is a huge problem, it is the giant elephant in the middle of the room, people shift uneasily in their chairs and stare at the conference table unwilling to make eye contact or utter a single word… this is exactly when the leader must step forward and be courageous in putting  the issue out on the table and leading a frank, honest and transparent conversation about what everybody is afraid to talk about.  It still amazes me how often I encounter companies with very serious problems, that everyone knows are costly and significant, and yet no one is willing to step forward and put the issue on the agenda.  In a culture that embraces courageous communication they run the problem and start a robust dialogue about how to deal with it and fix it… immediately.

4.  Listening, even when it hurts.   The last major skill of a courageous communicator is the ability to make it 100% safe for people to bring them bad news.  If there is even the slightest chance that the messenger will get killed, communication of any sort of negative feedback or unhappy news will come to a complete and grinding halt.  A great leader creates an atmosphere where people are not afraid to share even the worst news immediately, knowing that the focus will be on fixing the problem – not fixing blame.

In the last year I have delivered nearly 100 speeches and workshops to companies from every conceivable industry. Some had a handful of employees, some more than 100,000 employees, and I can tell you that the most common issue that all of these organizations struggle with is learning to be more open, honest, transparent and… courageous in their communications.  Hopefully the list I have just provided you will help you in fostering significantly better communications within your company.

Take good care – John Spence

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  1. In NZ there is a strong under current that we all grow up knowing that there is a sick pleasure in seeing someone be bold about what they want to do and then fall over trying.( The great Kiwi clobbering machine).
    Leaders have to get over this paralyzing fear and best handled when being driven by a higher calling or BHAG (Jim Collins). The other thing I think is that great leaders take the hit for the team – Great leaders put the teams needs ahead of their comfort – popularity.
    Leaders should be constantly going from Hero to Zero. As I lead my family with 2x teenagers I seem to be following the H to Z path regularly. Thanks John – really enjoying your stuff!

  2. John,
    Courageous communication — outlined with your steps — is a model for success in business and in life. So many believe that courageous communication must be confrontational or hurtful — not so.

    In fact, when done with balance, objectivity, and positive suggestions — even the toughest problem is solvable today.

    Excellent post — thanks for this one. I will RT on Twitter.
    Best wishes,

  3. John,

    Thanks for writing this post, as honest communication is something I’m passionate about.

    For those of you doubting the power of honest, open, and courageous communications, you are missing out on the most rewarding aspect of leadership, helping others become more than they might have without your leadership. I have been fortunate to have developed great relationships with those I’ve led and fortunate to see them grow and develop throughout their careers. I wouldn’t give that up for anything.

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