January 15, 2018

How to Speak Truth to Power


Speak Truth to Power

Today we celebrate the life and inspiration of the immeasurable Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr.  Dr. King risked his reputation and, ultimately, his life to speak truth to power.  He said “[t]he day we see the truth and cease to speak is the day we begin to die.”  Not only does speaking truth give the speaker power, it also empowers the audience and creates long-term community power.  But, what does it mean to speak truth to power?

Coined by the Quaker movement in the 1950’s, “speak truth to power means believing deeply in what you say and fighting every day to have that heard. It may not be popular; it means taking a risk, it means standing for something.”  See “Speaking Truth to Power”.  The Robert Kennedy Center for Human Rights maintains a curriculum titled “Speak Truth to Power” focused on teaching students and advocates world-wide on the power of speaking truth to fight for human rights issues such as bullying, child trafficking, women’s issues, sustainable investing and business with human rights issues as a focus. As our world has evolved, so has the application and use of the phrase  “speak truth to power.”

Last week, Oprah Winfrey elegantly and powerfully accepted the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Golden Globes.  Of her many themes, Oprah stated with fervor and conviction “[w]hat I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have.”  Now, there has been some controversy about the difference between “speaking your truth” and “speaking the truth.”  But, regardless of what you believe her ultimate purpose was, Oprah plead with the world to speak up, share our collective stories, be vulnerable, and overcome shame by taking action.

As I reflect upon my past few years and the trajectory of my life path, I continue to be inspired by Dr. King, Robert Kennedy’s Center for Human Rights, and Oprah Winfrey.  I wake up each day and, though it takes hard work every single day, I muster the courage in each moment to speak my truth.  I openly share my story about my childhood, my family, my education, my bad decisions and wrongful actions, my criminal case process, my sentencing, and my prison time.  I am starting to share the “after prison” story – redemption, lessons learned, commitment to ethical vigilance and overcoming adversity and shame.

What I know for sure is that I can now help others to make better decisions, to live a life committed to ethical decision-making, and help create corporate cultures focused on the global impact of “doing the right thing” and all that this one statement requires.  I consult with corporations on how to instill an open “speak up” culture committed to not only long-term sustainable ethics and compliance training, but also community giving, diversity & inclusion, physical and mental well-being and ethical mentoring.  I have found that the only power I have is in my vulnerability to speak the truth about my life.  My errors and bad decisions.  My mistakes.  My shameful experience.

I have learned, as Oprah suggested in her powerful words, that overcoming shame and speaking my truth is the powerful tool that allows me to reinvent my life and strive each day to help others.  Thank you Oprah and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for showing us that we must speak truth to power.


Rashmi Airan‘s mission is to share the need for ethical vigilance and to inspire you to make good ethical choices in all areas of your life. Rashmi is an ethics speaker and consultant fighting to create a culture of conversation and bring ethical issues in business to light, to promote integrity, to enhance commitment to fiduciary duty, to build ethical leadership, and to shift the paradigm of ethics standards through ethics training.

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