The Leadership Truth Juan Williams Revealed

By Lisa Petrilli

I grew up with my dad working for a Fortune 500 company in a number of management and subsequent senior leadership positions.  Although he came home at dinnertime carrying a briefcase, in reality he left “work” at the office.  Yes, he would get some paperwork done while my siblings and I did homework but that was the extent of it.  He couldn’t make any business calls because, well, let’s remember, we only had one phone line back then and I’ll be the first to admit I monopolized it as a teenager with a boyfriend. 

That was back in the “good ‘ol days” when the line between work and the rest of your life was clear and plainly visible.

The leadership truth that Juan Williams and NPR have now brought to the forefront is that the blurriness of said line has now gone well beyond the work/life balance in today’s 24/7 business world where we are “always on” to the question of the appropriate point in our personal lives as individuals expressing personal feelings and fears via social or other media when leaders we work for in other realms of our life have an ethical and professional right to take offense.

When is a human being’s expression of their personal feelings and fears within our purview as a leader?

  • Is the answer dependent on the particular role they play when they are working for us, as NPR’s response might allude to?
  • Is the answer dependent on the tone in which the feelings are expressed?
  • What about the question of whether the feelings and fears expressed by the employee cause others to be concerned about the employee’s safety or even the safety of others?
  • Is all of this irrelevant if it’s an expression of something entirely unrelated to work?


You see, underneath the fact that this particular situation can be viewed as an issue of Free Speech with serious Constitutional ramifications when viewed through a political lens, I worry about our core ability as humans to admit that we have fears; to admit that we have beliefs that may not sync up with what we’ve stood for all of our lives and that make us uncomfortable; to admit that we have flaws in our character as part of our natural condition. 

After all, I’ve been sharing with each of you my own personal journey to embrace my essential self – flaws and all – in a way that will make me a better leader and contributor to the world.  I’ve been casting off the chains of perfectionism and embracing the reality of my limitations and fears, and then finding ways to shed them from my life and replace them with opportunities for growth.

The last thing I want to do is to start going backward on this journey and see the same fate befall those on similar journeys…

What knocked the wind out of me upon hearing Juan’s story was the reality that he was judged on his expression of a personal fear even in the context of how he shared it, which I would say represented humility and forthrightness in the midst of his deep humanity and commitment to civil rights.  Yet even in this context, and even though he was expressing a fear that many Americans can understand even if they don’t experience that same fear themselves, he was fired. 

Fired in a cowardly, disrespectful, distasteful manner.

So, what does that mean for the rest of humanity as we share our own fears and beliefs with each other today in blogs, on Twitter, in Facebook and in other ways?  At what point can we as leaders choose not to like something said by an employee on their personal blog if it has nothing at all to do with their job?  At what point do we say it will affect how their colleagues view them?  Their clients? Their accounts?

And on the flip side, at what point do we start self-censoring our own free speech because we’re afraid of unjustified actions against us?

Steve Woodruff and I can’t wait to hear your thoughts – because this is the topic of the October 26th edition of #LeadershipChat.  Please join us at 8:00 pm Eastern Time to challenge each other and share with each other in regard to this critically important topic!  Looking forward to seeing your there!

As always, please feel free to share your initial thoughts and insights with me here.  I value your comments and appreciate you taking the time to respond.

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Photo is Listen to Wisdom by Ben Heine.


  1. Very well said. I know that in my official “day job” role, I too self-censor. I have people in my classes that are more interested in whether or not what I teach conforms to their political philosophy and less interested in really learning and understanding. Even though they are in the minority, they are usually the most vocal and tied to well organized groups, and that gives them power, now more than ever. This causes me to think even more carefully about what I think and say, which is a good thing. But I also know there are times when it affects how I deliver my message, which troubles me. I never want to surrender my professional passion to dogmatic bullies.
    Bret Simmons´s last blog post ..The Leader’s Power To Discipline

    • Bret,

      You really hit on such an important point – passion. If you ever did surrender your professional passion where would that lead to, right? If you’re passionate about teaching then I believe you want your students to learn to open their minds more than anything – to expose their minds to different angles and opinions and ruminate over them. If we have to be so concerned about being judged then we limit our ability to be quite so open.

      Thrilled and honored that you took the time to share your thoughts, Bret! Thank you so much and hope to see you tomorrow evening.

  2. Lisa:

    What happened to Juan Williams happens every day in the corporate world: people get fired for voicing politically incorrect opinions that many share but few are willing to. The corridors are filled with people who have made careers out of saying ‘no’ to anything with even a hint of risk. This explains a lot about the state of the economy and of larger corporations in general.

    We work in an “at will” world where you can be fired for the color of your tie. Or less. Juan was speaking well within his professional role as a political commentator and speaking on behalf of himself and NPR is well within their rights to fire him.

    We too have the right to bring the very appropriate heat on NPR for this weak-kneed decision and question publicly why our tax dollars (any tax dollars, frankly) go to supporting this fringe media outlet. That’s a free market view – something NPR has little connection to – but is how we do things here when we’re acting ‘on strategy.’

    • Stephen,

      Without getting political, I agree with so much of what you’re expressing here. When people are promoted on a track record with little risk it bodes poorly for the organization down the road, especially in this environment when actively disrupting your business to stay ahead of the curve is so important.

      I wish that in cases where it’s “well within the rights” of the company to do something, they take the other path that just may lead to intelligent discussion and be the more mature thing to do. I very much hope you’ll raise this tomorrow night – it wouldn’t be LeadershipChat without you! I love how you stir the pot. :)

  3. This wonderful post asks all the right questions and voices all the right concerns, justifiably.

    The firing of Juan Williams raised many cross-cutting concerns in a great number of people, not the least of which is freedom of expression, wrongful firing, poor leadership,
    and political correctness gone amuck, to name a few.

    I had a career in journalism; I still do to some extent, let’s just say my career path has been “cross-cutting” – I listened to many people and got into a few debates with others.

    Interestingly, or sadly, the discussion, or debates, with my colleagues and friends encompassed almost every other topic and issue as opposed to the merit, or lack thereof, for which Juan Williams was fired. Interestingly, the debates I refer to were nearly identical to what we heard (or hear daily) on Bill O’Reilly’s show or any other. You know, injecting opinion on FOX or NPR for that matter i.e. to quote Stephen Denny questioning: “why our tax dollars (any tax dollars, frankly) supporting this fringe media outlet.” (bet it was hard not to get that in there, nonetheless, he did – if he “liked” NPR or realized how “un-fringe” they are – shedding light on global issues most U.S. news organizations do not – oops, my “opinion”  )
    No question, the firing of Juan Williams was a pretext for something else, and it set a bad precedent, if not simply for the reason he was “fired in a cowardly, disrespectful, distasteful manner.” And surprisingly, after Williams’ firing, very little was mentioned again about the firing of Shirley Sherrod and the debacle that ensued subsequently. Are you kidding? That is about as stupid as stupid gets from a leadership standpoint, and by the leadership in our Administration.
    NPR did not like the relationship Juan Williams had with FOX for any number of reasons; it simply should have been revisited behind closed doors. NPR opened a political hornets nest by allowing everyone opportunity to jump on the “spin” bandwagon and allowed members of Congress to find yet another issue to insincerely campaign on – funding NPR.

    At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter that Juan Williams was expressing his opinion – oh and let’s not forget he was doing it in the role he had as a FOX news analyst I might add, and was fired ‘allegedly” for doing so.

    What matters is deeper than that. What matters is how people, organizations, politicians and our leadership have taken real and serious issues and skewed them in the name of “political correctness”. Those are the lines blurred and shame on them for doing so.

    Thus, in my view, compromising too many things we as a nation stand for.

    We never “start self-censoring our own free speech because we’re afraid of unjustified actions against us”, where would be now if the people we hold as What our current day leaders need to do is stop setting bad precedent.

    Fear not, Juan Williams was not judged on what he expressed that day – he may have unwittingly contributed to further erosion of good journalism – but then again, that’s just my “opinion”.

    • Debbi,

      Thank you so much for the kind words and for all of your support – it is all most sincerely appreciated!
      I really appreciate how you’re looking at this on a deeper level and that you raise the issue of political correctness. What’s fascinating is that in discussing political correctness you mention everyone – people in general and organizations. I think it’s a great question for LeadershipChat to ponder whether we all have a part in creating what political correctness has become for this nation.

      And your opinion is always welcomed here! I hope to see you tomorrow night on the chat – I love how open and honest you are about your frustration and passion for the topic! All the very best…

  4. Aaaaaand here is the video/blog perspective of the co-host, who clearly has some issues speaking his mind freely:
    Steve Woodruff´s last blog post ..Leadership- and the NPR Firing Fiasco

  5. The line is certainly blurred- if not completely erased altogether. Because so much of our lives is now on the internet- both professionally & personally, it makes it difficult to differentiate the two. They have now become one in the same. Who you are is who you are- regardless if you are working or playing.
    Gina´s last blog post ..Detecting Deception Part 1 of 4- Navarro

    • Gina,

      Excellent point. You’ve certainly brought it down to nuts and bolts with your last sentence. The question is – how do we as leaders accept and appropriately acknowledge this in our organizations?

      Let’s raise that question tonight – I hope to see you there! Thank you so much for taking the time to share on here!


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