Candid Leader

A leader is expected to have many virtues. Being candid is possibly one of the most important ones. While different people respond to different types of leaders, it is the boss who can combine bluntness with empathy and be direct and caring at the same time, who can establish the best possible relationship with his employees.

Radical Candor (2017) by Kim Scott builds the case for leaders with radical candor, guides towards creating an environment that brings out the best ideas and gives an insightful approach to the best management practices that make a kickass leader.

Developing Beneficial And Strong Relationships 

Not every manager or leader heads to work with a feeling of excitement about leading the team through another day of great work. However, a manager with radical candor certainly approaches the workplace with a positive attitude most of the days.

Practising radical candor involves two main principles.

  1. Personally caring about employees, and,
  2. Instilling challenge in their work.

These two principles are at the crux of developing trusting relationships with team members. While different people react differently, and have unique personalities, using radical candor works for just about any type of employee.

As a leader, one has to be personally invested in the growth and success of the employees. This entails proving that one genuinely cares about all that is happening in the employee’s life. It includes sharing, opening up and talking to the employee about more than just work and business. Not everyone believes it but a good work relationship is a very personal one.

Secondly, a good leader should be able to challenge employees, if and when they are meeting expectations.

While this can be a little tough to achieve, especially since candor and a direct approach might not seem like caring behaviour, the ability of a leader to challenge the team is a hallmark of a good leader who cares.

Being candid has several benefits for the performance and the culture of an organization, just as being direct and honest does. With honesty and a direct approach, a leader can open up the channels of communication with the team, making the acceptance and reciprocation of feedback easier.

Such an open culture of being candid, where employees can freely discuss with the leader and amongst themselves, will soon spread through the workplace, creating an efficient, healthy and productive work environment.

Radical candor (2017) by Kim Scott
Radical candor (2017) by Kim Scott

Balancing Honesty And Directness Without Offending

Managers often face defensive or aggressive behaviour after giving out constructive feedback, despite all good intentions. Being honest and direct, without seeming offensive is a skill. A leader has to be able to help and guide the employee while doling out criticisms, without sounding mean.

When Scott started as a manager at Google, her boss was adept at giving feedback with radical candor. Once, after Scott gave a presentation, her manager called her aside to give her constructive feedback. At first, her manager began to honestly compliment her for being able to handle the questions from the audience. Only after lauding her presentation, did she call out the fact that Scott used “um…” too often.

When Scott didn’t think of it as too important at first, her boss explained that using ‘um’ too often tends to make a person sound dumb, which was not the case with Scott.

Scott’s boss made her point clear and complimented Scott at the same time. After that, Scott took efforts to improve her speech with a coach. Such feedback is radical candor at its best!

Scott’s boss was direct, open, and honest, without discouraging Scott or discounting the success of the presentation. Her boss encouraged Scott to improve, without sugarcoating the criticism. The boss also didn’t wait to give feedback, enabling Scott to start working on improving immediately.

Being open, direct, and honest about both, the positive and the negative ensured that Scott didn’t consider it a personal attack.

The Pitfalls Of Lazy, Fearful, Or Overly Aggressive Management

Meryl Streep did a beautiful depiction of Vogue’s Anna Wintour in The Devil Wears Prada. It is the perfect example of a toxic work environment, and the leadership shown in the movie is exactly the opposite of what radical candor aims at.

Radical candor, as explained earlier, is about caring for employees. Honesty and directness do not justify being obnoxiously aggressive or being humiliating while doling out criticisms. Such behaviour can only destroy morale, create enemies, and encourage employees to quit.

That said, given a choice of being a friendly boss who can honestly give critical assessments to the employees or being an unpopular asshole who is painfully honest and direct, it’s better to choose the latter. After all, directness and honesty are far better for the organization and everyone involved.

Leaders should also be careful to avoid ruinous empathy and manipulative insincerity. While manipulative insincerity is a result of not caring enough to challenge employees, it shows that a manager is lazy. For example, a manipulative, insincere manager will tell an employee who has given a poor presentation that it was adequate, just because it is easier than having discussions over points of improvement.

On the other hand, a manager who has ruinous empathy will avoid conflict out of fear of hurting the employee’s feelings. However, in both cases, the employee loses out on constructive criticism that could have enabled him to improve. This will only result in further deterioration of the employee’s performance, leading to the employee getting fired for non-performance.

Providing Professional Development

A fulfilling job that drives genuine passion in employees, is a job found in utopia. In reality, work is tedious. Moreover, it isn’t a manager’s responsibility to make it easier for anyone.

Motivating employees doesn’t include sugarcoating the difficulties. Moreover, while a meaningful job, a purpose to fulfil can inspire employees to do their best, manufacturing a false sense of purpose and meaning can only backfire.

At Google, when Scott was a manager, she tried to convince her staff that their work was important to the creative worker. She would give her team pep talks. However, one of her employees saw through the façade and approached her honestly. He told her that it would do better if she was true to the team and told them clearly that their work was at times unfulfilling and tedious. Scott realised that there’s no shame in admitting that at times, jobs have only one purpose – and that’s to make money!

Hence, telling employees that working hard will bring satisfaction and that good work is acknowledged, rather than trying to alleviate their existential dilemmas’ is much better than giving them phoney motivational talks.

Leaders should rather provide employees with tools to help them grow as professionals, and give them a clear perspective of their careers. To do this, leaders and managers should be able to identify and differentiate between 3 kinds of employees – 

  • The Superstar employees, who need to be challenged, and given opportunities to raise the ladder to meet their full potential.
  • The Rockstar employees, who will do great work as long as they have the stability and the time to shine at their work, thus offering a steadier presence in the team, and,
  • The Falling Star employees, those who are unable to perform consistently, even after getting chances to improve.

The Firing Experience

Firing an employee is probably the toughest job a leader has. When an employee falls under the ‘Falling star’ category, leaders need to ensure that firing the employee is but the last resort left. This is because; firing an employee has several repercussions. 

Losing a job puts an employee in an incredibly tough situation. There are many aspects of the employees’ lives and even the organization that gets impacted. While, for the employee, it could mean loss of a source of income, the strain on his marital and/or family life, and even losing out on health insurance, for the employer, it means making a radical change to the team and the way it works, and even tackling the effects the firing will have on the other members of the team.

It is thus the leader’s job to ensure that an employee is let go for the right reasons, and the leader is seen as an honest and caring manager, despite the negativity surrounding the incident.

The leader thus should account for the following points before firing any employee – 

  • Making clear efforts to try and improve the employees’ performance.
  • Using radical candor to directly and honestly tell them that they indeed do good work, but certain areas need a lot of improvement.
  • Avoid personal attacks at all costs.
  • Keep in mind the negative effects the bad employee has on the overall working of the team.
  • Consider a second and even a third opinion before making the move.

Once all these points are taken into consideration, then the person can be let go. The leaders or manager, however, should have a clear plan chalked out as to how, when and where the employee will be fired. After all, the act must reflect well on the manager/leader, as being honest and working towards the best of the team as a whole.

Collaborative Leadership

Leadership should always be collaborative. Rather than viewing leadership as an opportunity to boss over people, it should be an opportunity to work with talented minds. Often, managers mistakenly think that it’s their job to tell people what to do. This leads to mistakes. 

Apple’s Steve Jobs knew that he couldn’t always be right. He relied on his team to challenge his ideas and speak up if they disagreed. Moreover, once, he was even furious with an employee who let him win the argument when the employee was right. Jobs went ahead and told the employee that it was his duty to correct Jobs when he was wrong, not back down in any argument when the employee was right, and avoid such mistakes.

Leading a team without giving orders seems like a paradox. However, collaborative leadership is the best way to make a team successful. There are four steps to practice collaborative leadership successfully.

  • Listen to the team – Listening to what members of the team have to say is the first step in collaborative leadership. It ensures that the team members feel safe to discuss and even disagree with the boss, leading to great collaborative ideas.
  • Time and space for ideas – The second step involves giving team members enough time and space to develop their ideas so that they aren’t shot down and are understood by others in the team.
  • Allowing healthy debates – Leaders should encourage healthy debates for every idea that is presented by a team member. These ideas become great only when everyone in the team agrees that it will work.
  • Pushing the idea ahead – The final step in collaborative leadership involves the leader or manager convincing other executives in the company that the idea of the team is worth taking ahead. Then it is the responsibility of the manager to execute the idea.

This process of collaborative leadership should be applied over and over again to all ideas and discussions.

Listening Loudly, Or Quietly

A leader should know when to speak, yet, having listening skills are as important. When it comes to listening, depending on the personality, the leader has two ways to choose from.

  • Listening Quietly – Listening quietly helps get honest opinions from team members. Additionally, it works best for leaders who prefer to let others talk. 

Apple’s CEO Tim Cook is notorious for being painfully silent and letting another talk. This provides the team encouragement, opportunity, and the freedom to speak their mind

To practice quiet listening, managers need to be quiet for at least 10 minutes per hour of a conversation, and patiently listen to what others have to say. It is often seen that managers interrupt others to give their opinions. This results in the person talking to change their ideas or thoughts to align with what the manager has said. By doing this, managers can never get an honest opinion.

  • Listening Loudly – Leaders that have confrontational personalities can opt to listen loudly. Steve Jobs was adept at practising loud listening. He would make a strong point, and then encourage his team to give stronger inputs to keep the discussions going.

Listening loudly pushes people to respond. It is a great method to get the shy employees to give their inputs. Loud listening needs the manager to instil confidence in the team to open up. Thus, a manager will have to be positive to opinions that come forth, even if the manager does not agree. 

Loud listening aims to get employees to speak up and challenge the points the manager puts forth.

Listening is a great skill. It helps in promoting a creative and effective team. Finally, it gives managers a way to help move the careers of the team members ahead.

Discussions that Help Reveal True Motives

Every employee has a dream to realize and achieve. It is thus the responsibility of the manager to help individuals realistically approach these dreams and achieve them.

Leaders should be able to talk openly and listen effectively to be able to grasp the aspirations of team members. This helps employees know that their leader is personally invested in their growth and is willing to direct them towards the right path.

Google’s Director of Sales, Russ Laraway would conduct career talks to keep the team motivated. During a discussion with an employee, Sarah, Russ found that she was a little hesitant, and not completely honest with him when she mentioned that she aspired to become a boss like him one day. On further probing, he found that her dream for the future was to own a Spirulina farm.

Russ discussed Sarah’s upbringing and got her to talk about her main motivators. He found that she wanted to help the environment and become a financially independent leader.

These discussions helped Laraway focus on helping Sarah develop her management skills so that her current job could help prepare her for managing her dream farm.

A leader needs to be able to identify the important motivators and dreams in their employees’ lives. To do this, leaders can use 3 types of conversations – 

  • The life story conversation – This involves helping employees open up about everything in their life that has to lead to their current position. This helps in identifying what motivates the employee.
  • The dream job conversation – This discussion involves finding out their biggest career desires.
  • The 18-month plan conversation – This discussion focuses on the immediate future of the employee. It helps a leader identify everything that needs to be done, to keep the employee on the right track.

These conversations help in identifying motivators and keeping employees highly motivated to achieve great things.


Being a great leader and a boss needs radical candor. Practising it can help a leader be truly honest and direct with team members. Moreover, it helps in challenging them to perform and achieve great things.

Practising radical candor also involves being personally invested in, and genuinely caring about the welfare, growth, and success of the employee. A leader should additionally practice collaborative leadership to ensure that are constructively receptive and to bring out the best in the team.