How to Overcome Diarrhea of the Mouth

By Thomas J. Lee

It may be another Twitter bomb from the second floor of the White House.

It may be an impertinent minimum-wage employee who has just found something else to grouse about.

Or it may be you—yes, you—in a weaker moment, when your time is short and your patience even shorter. From time to time, we all find ourselves tempted to, shall we say, let the truth be known. Oh, do we.


A news reporter called for my thoughts on prominent people—public officials, business executives, movie stars—who have spoken first and thought second, only to regret it, in very public ways. Politicians do that all the time, of course, but they're in the public spotlight all the time. Most executives are in the spotlight only when they seek it, so the ensuing flap seems more sensational.

The comments were all widely reported when they occurred, so I won't quote them here. Suffice to say that they all qualify for lifetime membership in the Foot in Mouth Club.

So the reporter’s question was rather simple: When should a business executive speak out publicly about something, and when should she keep her mouth shut?

I'll tell you what I told the reporter. Generally speaking, leaders should say only what they think, and think all of what they say, which is to say they must believe and feel the truth of everything they say.

However, there are five important boundaries on that advice. I call them the 5Rs. You should speak only when your thoughts are "5R Ready."

Before you say what you think, ask yourself these five questions:

  1. Is what you are about to say real, which is to say based on observable facts and familiar experience?

  2. Is it relevant to the situation or challenge at hand?

  3. Is it respectful of all people and their dignity?

  4. Is it relationally constructive, not destructive?

  5. Is it reasonable and rational, by which we mean both within the bounds of reason and logically derived by reasoning?

If it isn't all five of these, you should be asking yourself some tough-love questions as to why you're even thinking such things. They may be toxic to you and everyone else. Before you speak, get your head together, and connect it to your heart.

Executives and other leaders should also remember that they are never the judge of their own comments, any more than they are the judge of their own leadership.

Rather, it is the people with whom they are communicating who cast judgment on the leader’s communication, and it is the would-be, could-be followers who decide whether to recognize or reject the leader’s leadership.