All Articles Leadership Inspiration Will you speak up or will you remain silent?

Will you speak up or will you remain silent?

One way to think of leadership is that there are moments where you should speak up or do something -- but not everyone does. How can you recognize these leadership moments and do the right thing?

4 min read


Will you speak up or will you remain silent?


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It’s easy to say nothing!

It can be challenging and stressful to speak up.

Defining moments

Defining moments are important situations — some are life-changing — that require you to say something and take a stand. They test your commitment to your core beliefs and values.

All leaders spend time in reflection to identify what they truly believe and value. Their beliefs are tested and fine-tuned over time. True leaders can tell you, without hesitation, what they believe and why. They don’t need a teleprompter to remind them of their core values.

On the other hand, weak leaders are indecisive, wishy-washy and flip-floppers. They lack core convictions and seldom stick with their position.  

My first leadership role occurred when I was elected as co-captain of my high school hockey team. I failed. I was more concerned with being liked by my adolescent buddies than hold accountable to team rules.

For example, when one player was out late drinking and partying before a game, I said nothing. Not good! The lesson? Speaking up is part of your job, even if it makes you unpopular. Leaders need a high need to do what’s required and a low need to be liked.  

Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in 1963, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”  

Some examples of defining moments include:

  • Speaking up to an intimidating boss
  • Giving candid feedback to a colleague or friend
  • Pursuing a goal when everyone has said it won’t work
  • Saying “no” when all the other team members are saying “yes”
  • Asking difficult questions when groupthink is occurring
  • Terminating an underperforming employee
  • Pulling the plug on a major project after significant time and money have been spent

The very essence of leadership involves taking decisive positions on important issues. In some situations, half the people will support you, and the other half will question your competency or think you’re crazy.

How do you respond

When things get hot and tense, how will you respond?

If you become overly emotional, people will focus more on your emotions, than the content of your message. The best leaders are emotionally intelligent. They have a high emotional quotient, or EQ. They channel their emotions in a positive direction and respond in a confident and composed manner.

When you speak with conviction and composure, you gain credibility and respect.  

Prepare for your next defining moment:

  1. Self-reflection. Think about and write down your core, non-negotiable beliefs and values. The ones you will fight for and defend. The more rock-solid you are in your beliefs and values, the more confidence you will have when taking action.    
  2. Adopt some strategies to help you remain calm. Take three deep breathes and count to seven. This will give you time to think before you respond.   
  3. Focus on the benefits. These benefits (e.g. increased credibility and greater respect) are what will be gained when you live your core beliefs and values.

At age 27, I was the varsity hockey coach at American International College. Midseason, we had an away game at Norwich University. I told the players very clearly and very directly that the bus would leave promptly at 3 p.m. Most players got to the athletic department by 2:30, packed their hockey bags and boarded the bus. At 2:59, I could see three players who were about 500 yards away, walking nonchalantly toward the bus. At 3, the bus driver said, “What do you want to do?” I said, “It’s 3, let’s go” and the bus pulled away from the gym.  

It was a defining moment for me. Timeframe and deadlines do matter. My decisive action gave me credibility and respect. I meant what I said. 

No player was ever late after this experience. And the three late players found a way to get to the game, though they arrived after the first period.


Paul B. Thornton taught college courses in management and leadership for over 25 years. His latest e-books include:

He has produced 28 short YouTube videos on various management and leadership topics. Email him.

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