Sheila Madden, CEO, Madden Coaching & Consulting

As I watch the staggering inability of the world’s leaders to communicate with integrity and to engage people in solving the problems we face, I am reminded of one of the best leadership books I have ever read: Fierce Conversations, by Susan Scott. 

Does the word “Fierce” scare you? It shouldn’t. The lack of it is what should scare the living daylights out of you.  As defined on the book’s cover “fierce” means “robust, intense, strong, powerful, passionate, eager and unbridled.”

I must admit, I like these words a lot. I would go so far as to suggest that these words describe some of the core competencies of life, in addition to leadership.

Gradually, Then Suddenly

The book starts with a quote from Ernest Hemingway’s, The Sun Also Rises where one of the characters is asked:

“How did you go bankrupt?”

He answers, “Gradually, then suddenly.”

As you watch the indictments and sentencing of so many world leaders do you wonder how they lost their way so quickly and completely? For most,  it was probably gradually, then suddenly.  First there is one little white lie, then a lie of omission soon to be followed by a lie plus an act of commission.  The battle is lost with the first white lie. 

As this cycle spirals out of control, what is most disheartening is the ability of people to convince themselves that what they are doing is right.  Lying is not right, and it never will be. Failed leaders have been unable to have fierce conversations with themselves and, you have to wonder, who wasn’t willing to have the fierce conversations with them and call them on their behavior. In either situation, the result? Integrity shattered.

Guilty Of Any Of These?

Not all examples of breaching integrity are like those we are witnessing in daily headlines. In truth, we are probably all guilty of compromising our integrity at one time or another to differing degrees. We prefer to not think of it this way, but are you guilty of any of these? 

  • Ever not speak up in a meeting when you disagree with what is being said?
  • Ever pretend to agree with your boss when in fact you think his/her idea or strategy is flawed?
  • Ever pretend to agree with your boss or colleagues, then act in complete defiance of what you said?
  • Ever not resolve an issue directly with a colleague, boss or friend but then complain about it behind their back?
  • Ever fail to call out behavior that lacked integrity or worse, violated policy, practice or the law?
  • Ever fail to look yourself in the mirror and tell yourself the truth?

Here are Susan Scott’s 7 Principles of Fierce Conversations that when practiced will help prevent these pitfalls.

  1. Master the courage to interrogate reality.
  2. Come out from behind yourself into the conversation and make it real.
  3. Be here, prepared to be nowhere else.
  4. Tackle your toughest challenge today.
  5. Obey your instincts.
  6. Take responsibility for your emotional wake.
  7. Let silence do the heavy lifting.

How do you even start fierce conversations?

The book is chock full of good tools. Try these questions next time you want to have a fierce conversation:

  • What are we personally pretending not to know? What is our organization pretending not to know?
  • What is the most important thing we should be talking about today?
  • How have we behaved in ways guaranteed to produce the results with which we are unhappy?
  • What topic are you hoping I won’t bring up?
  • What is the most important decision we’re facing? What is keeping us from making it?

What’s The Difference?

The positive benefits of being able to have fierce conversations in our organizations are substantial. Take a look at these examples and decide in which environment you would prefer to lead and work.

  1. Focusing on activities or focusing on results?
  2. “Us versus them” or high levels of engagement?
  3. Being overwhelmed by complexity or being able to resolve issues collaboratively and quickly?
  4. An organization culture of “terminal niceness” or one that effectively confronts and transforms negative behaviors?

In a recent TED talk that Susan Scott gave called The Case For Radical Transparency, she shares this verse from a poem called “A Ritual To Read To Each Other“, by William Stafford:

“If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.”  

The poem ends with:

“For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give–yes or no, or maybe–
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.”

When You Can Lead Yourself With Integrity, You Are Ready To Lead Others

Our lives are a series of relationships, the success or failure of which happen one conversation at a time. Extraordinary leadership is the result of having fierce conversations with ourselves first and then with others. Only then can any of us hope to provide the caliber of leadership that our organizations need and desire.


    1. Hi Linda, thanks for the reblog and I’m glad you found it helpful. Love the Fierce Conversations book, good for business and good for life.
      My best to you,

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