Coming Out

Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, made news recently by publicly acknowledging his sexual preference; hats off to Mr. Cook and others like him who exercise that kind of courage.  I’ve been thinking that there are other ways of “coming out” as well, and am hopeful that Mr. Cook’s actions serve to encourage allTim Cook of its forms. “Coming out of our shell,” voicing unpopular opinions, tapping dormant potential or in other ways following a path less traveled, especially when risky, are all forms of coming out; they also constitute much of what we mean by “authenticity.” If we are unable to do these things we will fall short of living up to our promise and potential; we will be robbing ourselves, our organizations, families and communities of what only we can offer.

Common to any form of coming out, of course, is fear – fear of not being accepted or loved, fear of rejection, fear of failure or fear of physically harmful consequences. Sadly, fears of physically harmful consequences can be well-founded. Coming out as followers of a particular faith has been tantamount to a death sentence in parts of the world. Coming out for equal rights carried severe consequences in this country not long ago. Malala Yusafzai, a 13 year-old Pakistani girl and Nobel Peace Prize winner, was  nearly assassinated for “coming out” in favor of girls’ education.  And let’s Thoreau quote 1not forget Matthew Shepard. Fortunately, none of us is likely to face those kinds of consequences for coming out by taking unpopular stands, speaking our truth or following our own path. Yes, there will likely be discomfort and potentially unfavorable consequences, but so too will there be for not coming out. I suspect those consequences are in line with Henry David Thoreau’s sentiment that “most men (and women) live lives of quiet desperation and go to their graves with their song still in them.”

Here are common situations that pose invitations for “coming out” in a broader sense; what would you do?

  • In a meeting, our boss or organization’s leader proposes a direction or action that you have serious reservations about. She seeks consensus or agreement, and after everyone else in the meeting voices approval, she asks you what you think.
  • You are aware of accounting irregularities in your organization or unit that escaped your auditor’s attention, but that later could derail the organization and result in legal action. There are no means to anonymously report what you know.
  • Someone on your team is likeable enough, perhaps even your friend, but consistently doesn’t follow through with assignments that the team depends on. You are concerned about a defensive reaction if you bring it up, and about how it would impact your relationship.
  • You are with a group of friends or co-workers who are all united in their stand against an unpopular policy or decision, and whenever together complain loudly about it while disparaging its source. Privately, you actually think the decision or policy was a good idea and believe it should be supported.
  • For dozens of years your place of worship has been affiliated with a larger group that is a source of financial and other critical support. The larger group has taken a strong stand against acceptance or any leadership roles for members of the LGBT community, which runs contrary to your and your place of worship’s strong convictions. The larger group has also made it clear that it will expel and withdraw support from any member church that does not abide by its policy. (My church by the way, Judson Memorial Baptist Church in Minneapolis.)
  • You’ve always been drawn to art and design, as a kid thinking that you’d like to be a famous architect. Your parents and common sense prevailed, however, so in college you studied business and became an accountant. Twenty years later, bored with work, you still wonder how architecture would have turned out.

In each case there is an easier and harder choice. The easier choice, at least for the time being, is along the lines of “going with the flow” or not “rocking the boat.” The harder choice sacrifices shorter-term gains, including security, for the sake of staying true to a larger purpose, our principles, who we aspire to be and the life that we envision.

Allan McDonald, Morton Thiokol’s Solid Rocket Motor project director for NASA’s 1986 Challenger space shuttle launch, came out by refusing to sign off on Challenger’s launch, citing safety concerns. The launch proceeded CHALLENGER EXPLOSIONnevertheless, and the shuttle exploded 73 seconds after lift-off, killing all seven crew members. Sharon Watkins and the Colleen Rowley were named Time Magazine’s “Persons of the Year” for speaking truth to power, attempting to warn Enron’s CEO of accounting irregularities before it imploded and documenting the FBI’s mishandling of 9-11 related information respectively. When they have our organization’s and its constituents’ best interests at heart, we need to honor and protect those who come out by challenging prevailing truths or popular opinions.

About what injustice, wrong or concern are you considering “coming out?” Don’t wait too long; your conviction and courage could very well turn the tide.

What passion, forgotten dreams or hidden talents of yours need to “come out?” Do not “hide your light under a bushel basket” and rob your organization or community of your unique gifts.

What idea, proposal or perspective of yours, unpopular or far-fetched as it might initially seem, needs to come out? If it doesn’t, you, your community and organization may never realize its potential.

What are you waiting for?


“No one can, for any considerable time, wear one face privately, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which is the true one.”

Nathaniel Hawthorne


“If you call forth what is in you, it will save you. If you do not call forth what is in you, it will destroy you.”

Gospel of Saint Thomas


“You got to be who you are when you are.”

“Snoop Dog”


About Al Watts

inTEgro owner and veteran consultant with 25+ years' experience serving leaders and their organizations. Expert facilitator, strategic planning consultant and coach for senior teams and boards. Author of Navigating Integrity (Brio Books, April 2011) - a practical guide for positioning Integrity as a winning strategy.
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