Theirs is but to do or die – Actions to Ensure Honesty When Speaking Truth To Power

Sadly, old-fashioned ideas like “Theirs not to reason why, Theirs is but to do or die” still exist.

‘Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die’: these lines have become famous, though they’re often misquoted from the 1854 poem ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92).

The actual lines come from the second stanza of the poem inspired by one of the greatest calamities in British military history: on October 25, 1854, during the Crimean War, the British Light Cavalry Brigade, comprising some 670 men, charged disastrously against some 25,000 Russian soldiers.

The stanza was not about quiet courage; it was about blind obedience.

‘Forward, the Light Brigade!’
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
Someone had blundered.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.

Into the Valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.’

So as a leader, what can you do to make sure people can reply and speak truth to power in your team?

And how do you do it upwards?

How not to F Up conversations with your team

The Power/Truth Imbalance

The whole concept of speaking truth to power rests on an imbalance of power and information.

The leader has the power, but often the follower has the information.

Why isn’t transferring valuable, truthful information a simple thing?

It’s because a combination of weaknesses, opportunities, and threats are at play wherever those imbalances exist. What they are and how followers can do something about them is worth examining as a follower too.

Studying these imbalances helps you, as a leader, understand why people might not bring you their ideas.

Let’s look at an old-school SWOT analysis:


What must the leader do to ensure followers speak the truth to them?

They need to create conditions that minimize the followers’ weaknesses and threats.

      1. Do pass your experience on to your followers as to why you are making the decision.
      2. Do give Followers the context behind the decision.
      3. Do not punish those who offer him their logical opinions and well-reasoned judgments.

The third bullet (above) third is the most difficult for a leader. If you can’t make your followers comfortable challenging you, don’t expect to reap the benefits of their honest opinion.

Improve your conversations through silence.

What does the follower need to do?

First, this must be based on a bedrock of competence and professionalism. If you are a constant complainer, your moment of truth to power will be taken as another complaint.

But to be listened to, try to avoid threatening the leader.

      1. Explain how you see issues and facts in light of his grasp of the situation and detail.
      2. Do so in a way that doesn’t threaten his leader’s ego.
      3. Do not threaten the leader’s authority.
      4. Do not diminish the effort that the leader has made so far.

How might that look? Try to:

      1. The leader’s attention is grabbed in a way that doesn’t threaten his ego.
      2. Puts the problem up front as an observation based on the follower’s knowledge.
      3. Offers a solution rather than demands a change.
      4. Reduces the threat to the leader’s authority by giving them the power to decide.
      5. But finishes with a question, which creates a ‘closed loop communication.’ The leader has to respond.

Frame your difficult conversations with the power of Facts, Feelings & Future

Get attention, state the problem, offer a solution, and ask for agreement.

How does it work?

First comes the attention-getter. Recognize the Leader’s position by saying:

‘I know you have a tough job as our boss, and I am sure I couldn’t do better. But would you be open to hearing my thoughts on this project?’

Second, state the problem as you see it. Use a statement. 

“We plan to take the same action we’ve taken several times.”  

Third, offer a solution and use strong language:

“I know it seems like the safest option, and we’re under time pressure. We should take a few moments to repair the problem before we proceed.“

Finally, seek agreement. This is important because it focuses on the leader to reply. It closes the loop of communication:

 “Do you agree?”

I wouldn’t go so far as to say this technique will suddenly lead to your boss listening to you and agreeing with every point you make.

But it is backed by research in the airline and medical industries that show it increases the chances of leaders listening to followers. It’s also shown to improve the quality of outcomes as well.


Follower or leader: Improve your chances.

So, if you’re a leader, pass your experience on to your followers, give them the context and avoid punishing or otherwise damaging those who offer their logical opinions and well-reasoned judgements.

Teach your team to use the technique above and recognize it when it’s in action. When they use it, your team tries to tell you something you need to know.

Remember that complainers don’t get listened to when you are a follower.

Only competent professionals get to have their truth heard. Use the technique above to improve your chances of being listened to. Explain how you see issues and facts.

Do so in a way that doesn’t threaten your boss’s ego or authority.