Be honest, but still be nice: Things I learned leading in my own culture.


Any man or woman who is too timid to tell people the truth, even when it is hard for them to hear, will have difficult time leading.


I had a minor epiphany a few weeks ago.  I am in a position of leadership at my work. I have a few employees that are always very frank and upfront with me. (I have come to really appreciate this quality).  One of these frank employees came into my office and told me that I need to stop talking like a politician to my employees.  I asked what she meant by that statement.  She told me that I am often giving people answers they want to hear or talking around a question.

Wow.  Okay.

I did some brief soul searching on my leadership style and realized why I talk to my staff like a Politician.

I spent a bulk of my years in management working overseas for nonprofits. Just so you know…I made a comic satirizing this part of my life. In this line of work, I was a stranger in the countries where I was posted.  An outsider to the cultural norms.  Everything thing I did, everyone I supervised, everywhere I went; I was a diplomat by default.  Not only representing the organization I worked for, but also my country of origin.

  • If I wanted to make sure the shipment of pharmaceuticals made is safely across the border of Uganda and South Sudan: Diplomacy
  • If I needed the ambulance repaired in war-torn Libya: Diplomacy
  • If village chief did not want us to inoculate the children with a Polio vaccine: Diplomacy
  • If the overnight driver showed up drunk again and didn’t understand why he couldn’t do his job: Diplomacy
  • Tell the farmer he needs to get his goats off the airport runway: Diplomacy

Every aspect of my job that had me working with others; whether it be through contractors, other agencies, and employees; diplomacy was the way to do it.

Fast Forward years later… I am now working in senior management in a local nonprofit back home in New England.  I had little struggle with the job, even though it was in a completely different field of work.  At the end of the day the job was the same as what I did overseas, from a skeletal perspective:  I work to provide dignity, respect, and resources to a beneficiary population.  Not to water down all the work the thousands of charity, nonprofit, and humanitarian organization in the entire world does; but basically that is it. They all work to provide dignity, respect, and resources.

Then I had my minor epiphany.  The job may have been easy, compared to the high stress world of emergency humanitarian work, but my leadership style needed to be readdressed. Diplomacy was not as important a skill needed to get the job done on a day to day basis here in the United States.  Don’t get me wrong, it comes in handy with cross department politics, talking with outside stakeholders and the general public; but with my direct employees, not at all.

What is the actual leadership epiphany that I had received?  Americans want to hear the truth, but in a nice way.