Speaking Truth to Power

September 28, 2021


If you have access to those in positions of authority, you do them a service by thoughtfully speaking truth to power.

What does this mean to you?  The phrase speaking truth to power received broad attention in 1955, when Quakers in the US produced a pamphlet advocating for pacifism. The term is widely used in human rights activism and politics to represent speaking out to people in positions of authority. Today, the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights is one such example; with its US and European Foundations, this global initiative “uses the experience of courageous defenders from around to world to educate students and others about human rights, and urge them to take action”.

Supreme Court confirmation hearings were followed by revisions to corporate policies

1997 saw  publication of  Speaking Truth to Power, by Anita Hill, American attorney and professor of social policy, law and women’s studies. Hill, who provided testimony associated with the  nomination of Clarence Thomas to their country’s Supreme Court, polarized debate on how women and men relate to one another in the workplace. Thomas was confirmed, and Hill’s testimony drew attention to workplace sexual harassment; this ultimately led to groundbreaking decisions in the courts and significant revisions to corporate policies.

Willful blindness not good enough

More recently and on the other side of the Atlantic, the term willful blindness came into play in parliamentary select committee hearings associated with the Murdochs and their executives at News International. In The Price of (Not) Speaking Truth to Power, Harvard Business Review (HBR) writer Gill Corkindale outlined the defense of innocent ignorance; executives offered that they’d delegated to trusted employees and relied on others’ good judgement.

Willful blindness, a legal term that dictates one is still responsible if s/he has intentionally failed to be informed about matters that make one liable, means that those in power have a responsibility to not turn a blind eye to complaints and ongoings that have potential to significantly impact reputational or operational success.

Your options when something’s just not right: Exit, voice or loyalty

Now, most assistants reading this are unlikely to encounter situations such as those articulated by Hill or experienced by those who were in the employ of News International. Those who are in significantly strained situations, though, may want to have a look at a 1970 publication, Exit, Voice and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations and States. Written by Albert O. Hirschman, recognized as an optimistic and influential economist, this publication outlined different approaches people  in disagreement with cultural, political or professional circumstances may choose.

In a workplace context, Hirschman outlined three approaches:

  • principled resignation and departure – which implies reduction in capacity to stem the decline
  • loyalty to the organization – which can imply opportunity for people to articulate and advocate for change
  • articulation/agitation and use of influence to effect change from within – also known as speaking truth to power

Now, back to your work environment

The vast majority of us work with people who merit and generate respect and goodwill, and organizations increasingly empower employees with whistle blower/protected disclosure policies. Think, for a moment, from the perspective of your boss or someone in the C-suite of your organization.

What are the attributes your executive particularly values in an assistant? In other words, what distinguishes your skills from others’?

Increasingly, executives have taken on some of the tasks that were historically the purview of a secretary (or, more recently, an assistant). They’re more than capable of using a computer keyboard and placing their own calls.

The extent to which executives self-manage or delegate to others will vary, and many of you reading this have, in turn, your own assistants or staffers to whom you also delegate. So, if it’s not the technical capabilities that separate you as a key contributor, what is it?

It can and will be a number of competencies and attributes, as mentioned in How Do Exceptional Assistants Become That Way? For many stellar executives, an assistant’s capacity to speak truth to power will be particularly valued simply because there are degrees of removal from your office’s equivalent of the factory floor.  Even if your executive’s management style incorporates walking through the organization and talking to employees, they can’t know it all. While we’ll hope your executive isn’t surrounded by sycophants, many colleagues will have reservations about delivering difficult information.

Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics does an effective job of articulating  the ethical challenges of speaking truth to power, in contexts that range from the days of Sophocles, to Colin Powell, to Enron.

In Old Tales and New of Leadership, Organizational Culture, and Ethics, James O’Toole acknowledges the difficulty and personal risk inherent in delivering such information. A look at O’Toole’s paper will affirm that this is nothing new; while a skilled assistant may encounter risk in speaking the truth to her boss, our ancestors faced similar risk in speaking truth to people who ruled by force – be they clan or tribal leaders, or royalty.

Truth and Integrity: Your Responsibilities

In his paper, O’Toole points us to the thoughts of Richard S. Carter, whose 1996 book Integrity cautions that integrity requires more than simply telling the truth. Carter encourages readers to acknowledge and consider competing responsibilities. He offers that, for one to have integrity and virtue in speaking truth to power, such conversation must meet a number of criteria.

  • It has to be truthful
  • It must do no harm to innocents
  • It must not be self-serving/stem from self-interest; the benefits must accrue to others, or to the organization
  • It must be the product of moral reflection
  • It must not be done out of spite or anger
  • The messenger must be willing to pay the price

A Tall Order: Risk Management for Assistants

Are you feeling intimidated yet? That’s truly not the intent; rather, I’m thinking it’s best to approach such responsibilities from as informed a basis as possible. Consider how openly you do (or don’t) communicate with your boss; the capacity to have generally open communications should form the foundation of your ability to speak truth to power.

Consider how openly you do (or don’t) communicate with your boss

Pay attention to Carter’s criteria, and be certain you’re embarking on such a conversation for the right reasons. Next, while the risks are less extreme in 2014 than in Sophocles’ days, you want to embark upon such conversations with eyes wide open and thoughtfully consider and deliver your comments. It’s a delicate task but, effectively done and when working with a good executive, you may well find that the degree of mutual trust and respect may grow and help this particular business partnership grow from strength to strength.


  • About the Author: Shelagh Donnelly educates and inspire assistants on topics ranging from meetings and minutes to business acumen, cybersecurity and working with boards. She helps assistants nurture their adaptability, productivity and resilience in order to enjoy the career and continue to add value even as roles evolve. An international speaker, Shelagh worked with C-level executives for more than 25 years and is recognized for her governance expertise. Shelagh founded her globally read Exceptional EA website in 2013, and is the author of the upcoming book, The Resilient Assistant.   

This article first appeared in Exceptional EA, a globally respected professional development resource for administrative professionals. Visit to find out more and tell her we sent you



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