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The Art of Tact

2youngfriendsThe Center for Creative Leadership lists “political savvy” — the ability to influence people to obtain goals — as a vital soft-skill of leadership.

The heart of being politically savvy, according to CCL, is networking, reading situations, and thinking before speaking.

Political savviness is the tact to say the truth that needs to be said, but in a way that doesn’t damage the relationship more than the truth enhances the cause.

Unfortunately, this may be one of the most violated of soft-skills and why many potential leaders are without influence even though they have great ideas for improvement. Tact, therefore, is an essential quality to develop in working with others.

I define tact as the ability to influence others through using proper words and actions without offending the other party.

Truth in love is the principle, but it is easier said than done. For instance, how many meetings have you attended where truth needed to be told in order to move the meeting forward? However, instead of progressing in a tactful way towards this objective, someone, went off on the other party, impaling him or her on the “sword of truth.”

Predictably, the other party, instead of hearing the merits of the suggestion, responded to the attack personally and mounted an attack of his own on his antagonist. Both sides defend themselves and the meeting accomplishes nothing, but further damaged relationships.

In consequence, the truth exposed is buried under the escalating emotions and the only real, but wrong, lesson learned is to not share truth at all. The team, in other words, has chosen peace rather than progress.

Thankfully, there is a better path. Indeed, a person who masters truth with tact is worth his weight in gold.

But how is this essential leadership skill learned? Mainly, by practicing good judgment.

But ow does one get good judgement? Typically, by experience.

But how does one get the experience? Usually, through poor judgement.

Needless to say, I have violated the tact principle so many times, that if I had a dollar for every failure, I would match government’s inflation. Well, not actually, but you get the point.

(Incidentally, my book, RESOLVED: 13 Resolutions for LIFE, shares how to utilize the “plan-do-check-adjust” (PDCA) process to grow by personal experience.)

In any event, there is no substitute for courage and experience in developing tact — the courage to engage in crucial conversations and the PDCA process to learn from the experience.

Normally, when people have to deal with truth, they are uncomfortable and let their emotions get the best of them. Instead of sharing the truth in love, this comes off as a personal attack on the other party.

Remember this: the truth isn’t more important than the relationship. Simply stated, if the leader damages the relationship, the he has lost the ability to influence and it doesn’t matter how much truth he has to share.

Therefore, before I enter into any situation where tact is required, I remind myself to never share more truth than the person has the ability to handle.

Each person has a capacity for truth like a cup has a capacity for liquid. Thus, when a person pours more truth than a person can handle, it’s like pouring too much coffee into a cup. In effect, the attempted helpful action – sharing truth – has become offensive because “truth coffee” has spilled all over the person and burned the other person.

Everyone needs tact in order to influence. Nonetheless, people will live their entire lives violating the principles of tact, burning their most valuable relationships with too much “truth coffee.”

Knowing the truth, although important, isn’t sufficient. Above all, a leader must learn to share truth with tact, building relationships and influence with others on his journey to leadership excellence.


orrinwoodward 150x182 custom Leaders Break the Cycle of Learned HelplessnessOrrin Woodward co-authored the New York Times bestseller Launching a Leadership Revolution. His first solo book RESOLVED: 13 Resolutions for LIFE made the Top 100 All-Time Best Leadership Books List. Orrin was awarded as the 2011 IAB Leader of the Year.

Orrin has co-founded two multi-million dollar leadership companies and serves as the Chairman of the Board of the LIFE Business. He has a B.S. degree from GMI-EMI (now Kettering University) in manufacturing systems engineering. He holds four U.S. patents, and won an exclusive National Technical Benchmarking Award.

He follows the sun between residences in Michigan and Florida with his lovely wife Laurie and their children. Orrin’s leadership thoughts are shared on his blog – orrinwoodwardblog.com.


  1. Russell S. Tripovich says

    If truth sets a person free. Do we sacrifice the maintenance of freedom in ourselves, as well as freedom gained in another person, on the higher, more important alter of “relationship”? If human relationships is top priority, that is the cultivation of them, do we not subordinate the love of the truth, for “relationship”? Your article hits the bulls eye of such a common practical problem. I suffer from it, but, does tact really practically win a soul to our side when perhaps they prefer darkness rather than the light of truth?
    I have always held the perspective that the greatest need of our day is a leadership, in the essence of true manhood, that lays down it’s life for others by the uncompromising utterances of truth. Such a life wins very few “relationships”. Have I got it wrong? Thank you.

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