Any good leader can deliver the truth. But only the great leader knows how to deliver the truth.

Feedback is the lifeblood of your team’s progress. Whether positive or negative, feedback must always be steeped in the truth. In leadership, truth must be your north star. Without truth, there is no trust. And without trust there is no relationship. But truth is often a double-edged sword that must be wielded with care. There will be times when the truth is sharp, painful, and unwelcome by those on the receiving end. Delivered bluntly, truth can cause many people to become defensive and unresponsive, and can lead to unproductive interactions. In those cases, you must deliver truth carefully, tactfully, and delicately. In those cases, you must employ the “Delicate Truth Principle.”

Think back to “the hack,” or the leader who operates hierarchically. The hack is one who finds it difficult to deliver truth effectively. They either cower in fear of giving criticism at the risk of being disliked, or they recklessly criticize anyone and everyone because relationships don’t matter to them; after all, they are “superior” to those they lead. In these cases, truth could still be the hierarchical leader’s highest priority, but their approach to delivering it will always plant the seeds of larger, more destructive problems down the road.

A great leader, a territorial leader, offers two things the hierarchical leader does not: prudence and personal accountability. These are the two immutable pillars of the Delicate Truth Principle.

When you deliver truth with prudence, it requires that you truly care about your people. You wouldn’t want to tell them that everything is fine if they’ve made a critical mistake, just like you wouldn’t let your best friend walk around with ketchup smeared on her face after eating lunch. Prudent truth also means that you listen to your people, you understand their circumstances, and you recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to the truth. You have a sense of their level of sensitivity, not because you don’t want to offend them, but because you want to make sure they receive the message and take action to fix it. Prudence does not change the message you deliver. Prudence adjusts the volume.

When you deliver truth with personal accountability, it is the recognition that you as the leader are always fully accountable—even if the problem is your subordinate’s fault, even if someone is underperforming, even if someone failed to meet your expectations. No matter what you are criticizing someone for, you are taking full ownership of the situation. For example,

  • Instead of saying, “you failed to meet the deadline,” start with, “what support could I have given you to make sure you got the project done on time?
  • Instead of saying “your lack of professionalism caused us to lose business,” start with, “I’ve let things become a bit too relaxed around here, which played a big part in losing that last client.”

The common theme of the Delicate Truth Principle is not one of blame, but accountability. You are not removing someone from their responsibility for the situation. You are not letting them off the hook. Instead, you are leading by example. You are removing that initial layer of friction—that instinct to run from the mistake. You are showing them that it is okay to admit fault, and in the process, you are lowering their resistance to the constructive criticism you are delivering. You must make it clear that they are responsible. But immediately taking on some of the burden for them builds trust. And it will open their ears, open their mind, and open the door for more direct criticism.

The Delicate Truth Principle doesn’t imply that the recipient of the truth is delicate, although that may be the case. But it implies that the bonds of trust that hold a group together are delicate, and that you must treat them with great care. You don’t want to be the hierarchical leader that hides in the corner when mistakes need to be corrected. And you don’t want to be the bull in the china shop that delivers criticism without understanding of the downstream effects. Be the territorial leader who provides guidance, corrects mistakes, and cultivates trust.

By delivering truth tactfully and delicately, by providing useful feedback in a constructive and productive way, by implementing the Delicate Truth Principle, you will ultimately turn the double-edged sword of truth into a win-win for everyone involved.

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