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Speaking the truth when the truth hurts

Photo by Bearseye on Flickr

I recently had a tricky time writing a column for a community leader. He was winding down his role as the president of a professional society and my task was to recap the organization’s successes for the year and pass the torch with optimism, all in his voice.

Personally my client had endured a tragic year when his grown child died unexpectedly. My heart went out to him, yet when he returned to work I had the distinct sense that he did not want to discuss it. So I figured my best way to support him was to make the writing of his monthly columns as smooth and painless as possible.

He’d given me a rundown of the topics he wanted to cover, but when it was time to pen his final column, I struggled to get started. It seemed insincere not to acknowledge his personal loss in recapping the year. I have observed other CEOs write about their personal trials elegantly and with pathos—engaging and making employees respect them even more—but it wasn’t this dear man’s nature to do so.

I sat on my hands for a few days until I ran into him at a conference. Seizing the moment I said, “I’ve been challenged to write in your voice when I know you’ve been through hell this year.”

His reply: “Yes, I guess I’ve dealt with it by keeping busy. I know it’s probably not the healthiest approach.”

This was the extent of the conversation, yet for me, my tension eased. We’d shared a moment of candor, the saddest kind, and then we both got back to work. I put together his final column, which highlighted some exciting results including the groundbreaking for a new civic institution. I did not mention his son’s death.

Still, the piece was truthful. In it we dissected the professional tensions that were erupting in the industry and how people had been asked to do more with fewer staff—all due to an anemic economy.

As we wrapped up his draft, my leader proposed some final edits: Mention that he’d grown professionally that year and that he was grateful for working with great people. Check.

Sometimes there’s a time and a place for personal details in an editorial. In this case, with the platform too public and pain still too raw, there wasn’t. Still, I believe the column succeeded both in content and in process. Together we had prepared a sincere and honest leader message. It signaled progress and a course for the future, even as currents eddied in sorrowful pools just around the edges.

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