Say What You’re Not Supposed to Say

By in Social Justice on 21st Apr, 2014

Since I wrote about the sacred nature of leadership and my interest in progressive kinds of leadership that challenge the status quo, I have been thinking more and more about the connection between leadership and social justice activism.

The title of this post, originally expressed by Howard Zinn, has inspired me to consider what activist ideals might offer lessons for leadership.

I was initiated into leadership studies by a linguist (my Honours supervisor) so my interest in leadership started with language. My work is located in a genre of approaches concerned with the processes that leadership is constructed through, such as language games and discourse (Fairhurst and Connaughton, 2014). Leadership for me is fundamentally attributional and context-dependent. In the clever words of Gail Fairhurst (2009, p. 1609), “those who aspire to lead must figure out what leadership is in the context of what they do and persuade themselves and others that they are doing it”. Therefore what leaders say and how they say it is especially important to their projection, portrayal, and perception of leadership.

There are different ways that saying what you’re not supposed to say can enrich the practice of leadership. One way is a shamelessly instrumental technique to bolster one’s image during routine interactions like press conferences, media interviews, and debriefings with staff. Minor deviations from the ‘script’ such as a warm, personal story or a little slang inject character and charisma into one’s leadership style. My doctoral research on the media representations of banking CEOs during the Global Financial Crisis revealed that the banking leaders who shared stories about their pastimes and personal life often had more positive images crafted about them in the media, even as their bank’s share price plummeted. For example, John Stewart’s frequent references to his love of sailing led to his construction as the ‘seasoned sailor’ whose ‘steady hand on the tiller’ navigated National Australia Bank safely though the ‘wild credit storm’.

Of course, exercised in the wrong time and place, this approach can lead to disaster. I remember when John Fletcher declared at his appointment to the Australian supermarket giant Coles that he has never shopped in a supermarket in his life and alienated his entire customer base with one careless joke. Equally embarrassing was when Telstra CFO Phil Burgess was overheard at a party saying he wouldn’t recommend Telstra shares to his own mother.

Despite these PR gaffes, the other way leadership is expressed in saying what you’re not supposed to say is much riskier. This case is seen when people question the inconsistencies, irrationalities, and injustices of their system, whether that be their organisation or their government. By doing so, they almost always compromise their leadership status and the material and symbolic success acquired along with it. The more economic and social capital they gain through their progression to the top, the more they have to lose when they question the systems that have served them so well.

The leadership optimist in me would argue that the mark of exceptional leaders, if we’re not exhausted by the overabundant claims of this already, is a willingness to question the hierarchy on which they sit. It’s the courageous practice of saying what you’re not supposed to say so that the injustices of the very system that raised you to your position of power and privilege are challenged. It’s not the kind of self-sacrifice that leads to martyrdom, but a self-sacrifice that leads to obsolescence. These leaders are not the historical figures we can all name as exemplars of leadership. If they existed at all, these leaders are nameless, undone, and forgotten.

W.E.B. Du Bois

The leadership pragmatist in me is eagerly seeking out people, groups, and movements who are already striding towards the creation of a more just world. They are questioning the interlocking systems that sustain Western societies as we know them: imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy. They follow the words of historian, sociologist, and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois who charged: “We must complain. Yes, plain, blunt complaint, ceaseless agitation, unfailing exposure of dishonesty and wrong—this is the ancient, unerring way to liberty, and we must follow it.” These social justice activists might not all be risking lofty positions of authority, but they continually face marginalisation, condemnation, and ridicule by saying what they’re not supposed to say.

In thinking, writing, and speaking about leadership throughout this last year, I have had the great pleasure of meeting those who are committed to social critique and change. Theirs is an expression of real courage. Theirs is an expression of real leadership.



Du Bois, W.E.B. (1905), ‘The Niagara Movement’, The Voice of the Negro, 2(9), (September 1905), pp. 619–622.

Fairhurst, G. (2009), ‘Considering context in discursive leadership research’, Human Relations, 62(11), pp. 1607–1633.

Fairhurst, G., and Connaughton, S. (2014), ‘Leadership and communication’, Leadership.

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