Real Leaders Say What They're Thinking, Even When it's Uncomfortable

Comedian Jim Gaffigan (@JimGaffigan) is on the road, performing his Mr. Universe Tour.  He’s a riot – if you get a chance, go see him. 

One of his best devices is the use of the “inside voice.” During his show, he repeatedly makes comments about his own jokes and performance in a different voice. You quickly realize it’s the inner voice of the audience remarking or criticizing Jim. It’s extremely funny and a clever way to deliver his humor. 

Watching Jim at one show, I realized that all leaders also have this inside voice going on. You know the one - you’re having a chat with someone. You’re saying something bland and supportive to that person, but thinking something entirely different inside your head. 

The problem is that when we have 2 tracks going on, we don’t realize that we are most likely not clear in delivering the messages we need to deliver. By holding back, or sugarcoating a point, we don’t express what we are really thinking or feeling about a situation.

I was recently in a meeting with a client that included two other leaders. One was the Chair of the Board, and the other was a senior level executive. The senior level executive was sharing his ideas on a strategic priority the organization was exploring. I felt his arguments were weak, and that he hadn’t completely thought through what he was saying. 

The Chair of the Board is a straight shooter. It was amazing to see him interact with the other leader. He gave him direct feedback and expressed his disappointment at the poor level of thinking. He did all of that in a very respectful manner that the senior leader appreciated. I came way amazed at how honest and direct the Chair was with the other leader. 

It’s an ability that I’ve come to admire in great leaders. They tell it like it is even when it is uncomfortable. You know that they are giving you exactly what they are thinking. As a result, they are perceived as being transparent and trustworthy. 

I know many leaders struggle with being this direct. Yet it’s important to gain the confidence to do it. And the first step is to become more aware of your inside voice and how aligned it is to your outside voice.

So the next time you are interacting with someone at work, compare what you are saying to the person with what you are thinking inside your own head. The more in sync we can make those messages, the more effective we’ll be as leaders, and the more trustworthy we will be perceived to be by others.

By the way, if you are looking for a laugh, check out Jim Gaffigan at