Integrity requires that leaders speak their truths

I wonder how many children’s lives might be saved if we educators disclosed what we know to each other. —Roland Barth (Photo: Dennis Sparks)

Instead of withholding our thoughts and feelings, we can share them. We can tell the truth—not The Truth (as in assuming our ideas are always right) but our truth, the way we honestly think and feel. . . . Refusing to speak our minds often cheats others of an opportunity to look at a problem with a fresh pair of eyes.

—Dave Ellis

Leaders’ integrity sets the tone for relationships within schools and has a profound effect on trust with the school community. At its core, integrity means being honest and doing what you say you’ll do.

Significant school improvement efforts rise and fall based on the quality of relationships within the school community, and trust is the glue that binds the school community into a cohesive whole. That cohesiveness is an important factor in determining whether schools continuously improve teaching and learning for the benefit of all students.

Put another way, leaders’ integrity is a critical element in the establishment of high levels of trust, and leaders’ honesty is an important aspect of their integrity. When leaders speak their truth, important learning almost always occurs, even if the process itself is sometimes uncomfortable.

Educators have a name for the venue in which the truth is consistently told—“parking lot meetings.” Such meetings also occur in bathrooms, hallways, and bars. But what’s most important about them is that the truth telling is not occurring in settings where it could make a difference.

The power of a leader’s voice comes from its authenticity, from a listener’s belief that the leader is telling his or her truth rather than reading from a script or “spinning.” There is a difference, of course, between “my truth” and “The Truth.” I express my truth when I share my values, intentions, assumptions, and requests in the spirit of dialogue and with a willingness to be influenced by the perspectives of others. When leaders proclaim The Truth they deny the validity of other points of view and suppress dialogue and learning.

A bumper sticker warning, “Speak your mind, even if your voice shakes,” reminds us that telling our truth is often scary. Most human beings reach adulthood having learned through painful experience to shy away from the discomfort that truth telling often provokes. Because each situation is unique and brings its own anxieties and reasons for avoidance, there are no formulas or simple tips for acquiring the habit of speaking with directness, candor, kindness, and respect. But with rehearsal and experience we can learn to do so more effectively.

To enable our truth telling we can:

• clarify our thinking in advance of an anticipated conversation by writing or talking through our point of view with a trusted colleague,

• begin by telling less risky truths to test the waters and to lead up to more substantial issues, and

just do it, which sometimes means summoning our courage to act in the face of our fear

When I am searching for the motivation to tell my truth, I remind myself about what is often at stake—the life chances of children, particularly those young people whose opportunities will be largely determined by the quality of education they receive.

Leading for Results “Six-Word Leadership Tool”:

Serve students by telling your truth.

Strengthen your leadership practice by . . .

• identifying a situation in which telling your truth will serve students and rehearsing what you will say.

• listening in a committed, respectful way to the views of other to promote professional learning and create trust.

• developing a “six-word leadership tool” to summarize your learning or to express an action you will take as a result of this essay. Please add your tool to the comment section of this blog and share it with one or more colleagues “back home.”

5 Responses to “Integrity requires that leaders speak their truths”


  1. 1 Chris March 22, 2010 at 6:12 am

    I believe Eleanor Roosevelt said it most powerfully:
    “There is no more liberating, no more exhilarating experience than to determine one’s position, state it bravely and then act boldly. Action creates its own courage; and courage is as contagious as fear.”

  2. 2 G. Michael Abbott March 22, 2010 at 8:41 am

    The opening statement is the key to improving education:

    I wonder how many children’s lives might be saved if we educators disclosed what we know to each other. —Roland Barth

    However, the quality of relationships and the lives of students can be drastically altered by the introduction of merit pay. If a successful teacher knows that his skill at improving his students’ test scores would be used to help a fellow teacher’s skills, and therefore threaten his merit pay, he might not be open to this kind of altruistic sharing.

    A leader’s effectiveness can be undermined by mindless “solutions” to educational problems now being proposed. Of course “merit pay” could be designed to include teachers who share, who show professionalism beyond score raising alone.


  1. 1 Creating schools in which students and adults thrive « Leading for Results—Dennis Sparks' Blog Trackback on March 29, 2010 at 4:03 am
  2. 2 Adopt “vital behaviors” « Leading for Results—Dennis Sparks' Blog Trackback on June 7, 2010 at 4:25 am
  3. 3 Leaders’ authenticity determines their effectiveness « Leading for Results—Dennis Sparks' Blog Trackback on July 6, 2010 at 10:01 am

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