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How to Develop Leaders

Why Candor is Critical to Leadership

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Let’s say you’re my boss, right?

God forbid for you. I’d be lucky.

So let’s say you’ve recently hired me, we’re at McKinsey, and you’ve got all these assumptions about the person that you’ve hired, and I’ve got all these assumptions about what my role is in this organization, and you’ve asked me to do some kind of, I don’t know, discovery deck or presentation about this new client that we’re going to have.

Okay. Yeah. You want to create a presentation about a new client? Sure.

So I’ve gone off, I’ve done this thing.


I didn’t really agree with the scaffolding or the template that I was given, and I don’t really particularly like the client. But because this is my first assignment for you, I’m coming in and I’m thinking, gosh, I don’t really want to do this, but I’m going to have to do it, or I perceive I’m going to have to do this. And so I’m going to have this conversation with you, and I’m going to give you what I think you want to hear.

Okay. Yeah. So I call that defensive, for sure, or at least self-protective.

Okay. And why do people typically… So I guess just going back to the conversation we were just having-

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

… that, to me, feels like a very normal feeling to have-

Oh, yeah.

… to a superior on an assignment. And people kind of, they just inherently default to behaving in this way. And I find that super interesting, which is why we’re teaching this kind of course.

It is super interesting.

Why wouldn’t I just say, “Todd, I went off and saw this client A. I don’t think we should be working with them because I don’t agree…” Let’s say they did something that was counter to our belief systems. “It’s not a client that I’d prefer to work with. I don’t like the template. I don’t think it’s adequately getting at the things that we want to actually know from this person so that we can see that this is not a client that we want. And I don’t care that you’re paying me to do this, because I’m just going to tell you what I think because this is what you hired me to do.”

Yeah, so the whole thing becomes undiscussable.


Right? So your question is, why don’t people just say all that?


Well, first of all, there might be some good reasons, right? I’d like to keep my job. So I’m not faulting people for not saying it. Now, as to why may people say it, or not say some of those things, which actually might be beneficial to talk about, if you were to ask Chris, Chris and Bob Keegan might have slightly different, but overlapping answers. So if you look at it from a model one lens, and again, this is… Or as I’m calling it, the overprotective lens where people want to keep things comfortable, which is largely, again, self-protective, right? So let’s take the first thing. I don’t like this template. Let’s take the easy one, maybe first. I don’t think this effective template. Well, somebody might be thinking… Well, first of all, just might make an assumption that might decide for their boss that their boss isn’t interested in that conversation. That’s a kind of unilateral thinking. You’re kind of playing God with me, as somebody who works for me, deciding for me, what I want and don’t want without actually ever having a discussion about that.

And Chris would call that a form of unilateral control, which is a variable in model one. Two, the person might also make an assumption that if I were to have that conversation with my boss, that my boss wouldn’t like it, and therefore that would mean some bad thing or things would happen to me. Again, that’s a major assumption that you’re making, but you could see how it’s profoundly, right? So I’m trying to make sure, from a competition standpoint, I’m trying to make sure I don’t lose. So the driver of competition to win, not lose may underpin why I wouldn’t have that conversation because I’m trying to avoid any risks to me, to my credibility and my boss’s eyes, to how I’m evaluated, which can affect my pay, which can affect my ability to, I don’t know, move up the ladder, as they used to say.

It also might be maybe I feel like it’s going to be an uncomfortable conversation for me because… And so I want to avoid that. So from a model one or an overprotective standpoint, it makes a ton of sense, but all the assumptions that the person is making may not be actually right. What someone might say in that situation instead, if you’re truly committed to the truth of something and truly committed to doing some good, and that’s more important to you than your ego or your feelings, then you might say, “Hey, listen, I’ve got… Obviously, I’m new, and maybe I’m way off base here, but I’ve got some concerns about this template. And I’m not sure if it’s even appropriate for me to ask you, but I’d love to be able to have a conversation with you about it because maybe there’s some value in this thing that I just don’t see. Can we talk about it?”

I think most managers should be like, “Yeah. Sure. Of course.” But also, notice the condemnation initially of this person, like this template is bad, therefore I’m right, therefore I can’t discuss it because I preach judge it, and there’s really no humility. So of course, these are very normal things, to kind of make controlling assumptions, to want to protect yourself from any losses, to want to avoid a uncomfortable conversation, and then to judge other people and other things and having no discussion about it. Those are all very human things. But if we want to be more effective in the world, I think we have to overcome some of these limiting aspects of our humanity, and it’s quite possible. And the truth is, when people have those conversations, generally, their credibility goes up not down, and they end up squandering an opportunity by not doing so.

Of course, it has to be handled at the right mindset in the right way, and that’s so important. Because the person said, “Hey, I think this template sucks. Let me tell you why it sucks. I think we should use something different,” that’s probably not going to go so well. And so all your theories about all the bad stuff that’s going to happen probably will come true, but it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. You made it thus. But if you were to handle it in the way I was describing it, the probability that it’s going to go badly is pretty darn low. And that’s why it’s a competence.

And what does that have to do with leadership?

Well, again, if you define leadership, it was mobilizing people to confront and deal with problematic realities in order to make things better. Well, then you have a version of the truth. Now, the idea is that you want to have the proper relationship to your own opinions about things, right? Bob would’ve said, “You want to see it not as a truth with a capital T, but a lowercase T,” which I always liked. It’s like, okay, we all see through the glass half darkly, right? None of us are omnipotent or omniscient. So even though I have a strong feeling about something, it’s very useful to have some doubt about your strong feelings about things. So, sorry, that’s not exactly answering your question, but the idea is, if I have a view that there is some problem, then leadership [inaudible 00:08:29] mobilizing you to kind of face that problem, and let’s discuss it with each other, and then let’s figure out what to do about it, because there’s a client who’s good you’re trying to serve at the other end of this kind of stupid template, right?

And if this template is preventing us from doing a proper analysis, or from doing as good of analysis as we otherwise might in order to serve the client, then certainly talking about something that seems so trivial like a template is important because it’s a tool that you’re going to use to serve some group of people better. And again, the way I think about leadership, and the group of us think about leadership, is about you’re intervening to make some type of difference that could positively affect people on the other end of it. So I think people discount something like this, like, “Oh, I’ll just let it go.” But we don’t think about the ripple effect that these small decisions have, for good or ill.

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