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A Leader Speaks the Truth, Even When It’s Bad News

January 27, 2016 • Life for Leaders

And Joseph answered, ‘This is its interpretation: the three baskets are three days; within three days Pharaoh will lift up your head—from you!—and hang you on a pole; and the birds will eat the flesh from you.’”

Genesis 40:18-19

Two people deep in conversationPerhaps one of the most unpleasant tasks of leadership is saying what people don’t want to hear. Sometimes this takes place in large groups, when you have to deliver bad news to your employees or stockholders. Often, however, this kind of communication happens in face-to-face conversations, when you have to tell your boss that the crucial project won’t be done on time, or when you need to tell one of your direct reports that her job is being phased out.

Ironically, sometimes it is love that moves us to say hard things to people. If we lacked love, we’d avoid the discomfort and remain silent.”

In Genesis 40, Joseph found himself in a place where he needed to deliver bad news to someone. His news was worse than a late project or a layoff. He had to tell someone that he would soon be killed.

As you may recall, we have been reading slowly through the story of Joseph in Genesis. When we left off, Joseph was in prison, having been falsely accused of sexual assault. While he was there, Pharaoh’s chief cupbearer and chief baker joined Joseph in prison because they had offended Pharaoh. One night, both of these men had perplexing dreams, which Joseph offered to interpret, with God’s help. The chief cupbearer received the good news of his imminent return to Pharaoh’s favor and service. But the chief baker’s dream was a portent of doom. Joseph told him, “This is its interpretation: the three baskets are three days; within three days Pharaoh will lift up your head—from you!—and hang you on a pole; and the birds will eat the flesh from you” (40:18-19). Ouch! Talk about bad news! It doesn’t get much worse than this.

Joseph shows that he has the character of a strong leader in his ability to speak hard truth. Commenting on this passage, my friend Al Erisman, in The Accidential Executive: Lessons on Business, Faith, and Calling from the Life of Joseph, writes: “[Joseph] was straightforward in his communication. He had bad news to deliver, and he did so compassionately but honestly. Delivering bad news is difficult, whether it is to a subordinate or to a superior. Joseph would need to deliver bad news to a superior later, and this might seem even more difficult, but delivering it to a subordinate is also tough. It was a fundamental part of leadership then and remains fundamental now.”

Of course, as Christians we are to speak truth in love (Eph 4:15). This means that when we have hard things to say, we much say them with compassion and grace. Ironically, sometimes it is love that moves us to say hard things to people. If we lacked love, we’d avoid the discomfort and remain silent.

If you find yourself in a place where you have to deliver bad news to people, may God grant you the grace to be honest, loving, and compassionate. May you speak the truth that needs to be spoken in love.

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:

Can you think of times in your life when you needed to say hard things to people? Were you able to be truthful and loving? Why or why not?

Are there hard things you need to say to someone today? What will motivate you to do this? In what ways do you need God’s help with this?

PRAYER:

Gracious God, when I read this story from Genesis, I cringe. It must have been hard for Joseph to tell a man that he was about to die. Yet he did so faithfully and honestly. Thank you for his example.

Help me, Lord, to learn to speak even hard truth in love. Help me to say what needs to be said when I know it will be uncomfortable to do so. May I be motivated by love as well as a commitment to the truth. Give me grace as I speak, as well as a compassionate heart.

May everything I do and say in my leadership honor you! Amen.

 

P.S. I highly recommend the book to which I referred above, The Accidential Executive: Lessons on Business, Faith, and Calling from the Life of Joseph by Albert M. Erisman. Al brings a uniquely wise perspective as a lifelong business leader who also has a deep understanding of Scripture.

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