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May 15, 2015

Are You a Candor Black Belt?

I’ve taught leaders about candor for many years and I’ve noticed that there are levels of candor mastery just like levels of martial arts. A white belt and a fifth degree black belt are both practicing Karate but with very different levels of proficiency.

Everyone who speaks candidly practices the three key components of candor: honesty, openness and awareness. But not everyone practices at the same commitment and skill level.

Level 1 - Honesty 

Level 1 candor begins with honesty. You start to tell the truth as a way of life. This seems simple but both research and our own direct experience tell us that leaders lie. Recently a leader told me that he lies by simply not reporting the facts accurately. When asked how long he had exercised that day by one of his teammates, he said an hour, when the truth was he worked out for forty minutes. In our experience this is not a small step. A commitment to stop lying, spinning and stretching the facts is a huge step in the school of candor. 

Level 2 - Openness

Level 2 candor moves from not lying to telling the whole truth. At this level the leader knows that it’s possible to not lie and still not fully reveal. Leaders withhold relevant information in order to manipulate outcomes. People developing candor mastery learn from experience that this constant attempt to control people and situations is a waste of energy. A nation and a generation learned this as we watched President Clinton say, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” and “it depends what the definition of ‘sexual relations’ is.”  Clinton was simply letting us all see how we each withhold relevant information in order to control and manipulate outcomes. Level 2 leaders stop withholding. 

Level 3 - Non-Attachment 

Level 3 leaders become unattached to proving they’re right. They do this partially by differentiating fact from story. They know that by and large most of leadership and life is opinion, belief, judgment and interpretation. They also know that all of these are made up.  All of us are making up stories about life all the time. Level 3 leaders speak honestly (they stop lying), openly (they stop withholding) and they share all their beliefs and opinions about all the issues of their organization but they don’t fight to be right. They make decisions and lead not because they need to be right but because part of their job is to make decisions and lead. By holding their stories lightly they create cultures of openness where people reveal all their thoughts, opinions, judgments, beliefs and perspectives without needing to fight to be right. 

Level 4 - Conscious Listening

Finally, level 4 candor masters do all of the above AND by the very way they do it they create organizations of curiosity and candor. They do this by not only speaking candidly but also by listening consciously. Conscious listening is listening with the head, the heart and the gut. In order to master conscious listening, you will need to be able to be comfortable with emotions, theirs and yours. Emotions are welcomed as a source of intelligence in the conversation.

You cannot be a master of candor and not be a world-class listener. Conscious leaders reveal and speak honestly, openly and from non-attachment with such presence that they create cultures where others are growing in candor mastery and where others love to listen with high degrees of curiosity. 

So while few leaders intentionally lie to their colleagues, it takes a commitment to all four levels of candor to create the kind of wise and truthful leadership that takes organizations to the next level. If you want to take your candor up a few notches, put your attention on your level of honesty, openness, non-attachment and listening, check in with yourself and see where you can go just a bit further with each.

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