A 5 Step Plan for Speaking Truth to Power

Posted 09.14.2011

Elmendorf Let’s hear it for Doug Elmendorf!

It’s possible that, as was the case with me until yesterday afternoon, you don’t know who Doug Elmendorf is. He runs the Congressional Budget Office and was the star witness at a hearing yesterday of the Congressional Super Committee charged with reducing the federal deficit by $1.5 trillion. I heard parts of Elmendorf’s appearance in a story on NPR and knew immediately that I was blogging about Doug today. When it comes to effectively speaking truth to power, Doug rocks. He’s a role model for any leader who has to sit or stand in front of a group of powerful people and tell them things they may not want to hear.

You owe it to yourself to listen to the NPR story. It’s a little over four minutes long and you may want to stand up and cheer when it’s over. In the meantime, here’s my breakdown of Doug Elmendorf’s five step approach to speaking truth to power:

  • Know Your Facts:  When it comes to the federal budget, Elmendorf is the expert’s expert. He’s earned the credibility to say what has to be said. You’re in a much better position to speak truth to power if you have built a reputation as a talented person who knows their stuff and gets stuff done.
  • State Your Case:  Elmendorf came to the hearing prepared with a strong case simply stated. “Putting the federal budget on a sustainable path will require significant changes in spending policies, significant changes in tax policies, or both.”  As NPR’s Andrea Seabrook reported, “He said the committee must answer three questions: how much money the government is going to save; how quickly it is going to do it; and what mix of spending reductions or tax increases it is going to use.” Clear, succinct communication enhances your ability to speak truth to power.
  • Stand Your Ground:  When Senator Jon Kyl brought up the topic of reducing the deficit by going after Medicare fraud, Elmendorf replied, “I’m not against our working with you on any issue that you want us to work with you on but there’s no evidence that suggests that this sort of effort can represent a large share of the $1.2 trillion or $1.5 trillion in savings for this committee.” What Elmendorf said and how he said it, with a respectful but fact based tone, is a model in how to stand your ground when a powerful person makes a suggestion that takes the collective eye off the ball.
  • Keep Your Cool:  Armed with his experience and knowledge, Elmendorf kept his cool under pressure. It’s likely that he knew more about the federal budget than most of the people in the room put together but he didn’t come off as condescending. He was respectful in the face of questions or suggestions that weren’t on point and didn’t betray any impatience. Going soft on the people and hard on the issues is usually a good way to go when speaking truth to power.
  • Offer Options:  When speaking truth to power, you want to avoid backing the other party into a corner. One way to do this is to offer options that square up with the facts of the case. Again, as Andrea Seabrook reported, Elmendorf did exactly that when he suggested that the committee “Cut taxes or increase spending in the near term, but over the medium and longer term, move in the opposite direction and cut spending or raise taxes.”

What experiences and advice do you have about speaking truth to power? When you’re in the power seat, what best practices do you recommend for those doing the speaking?