Lessons on candor from Dirty Harry

Harry Callahan: Personnel? That’s for assholes!
Capt McKay: I was in Personnel for ten years.
Harry Callahan: Yeah.

“The Enforcer” (1976)

There’s a bit of Dirty Harry in all of us. Sometimes we just say stuff without thinking. In my case, I think about it a while and sometimes say it anyway.

Harry Callahan spoke with the candor of a street cop, and that candor made his character legendary — along with that .44 Magnum. But candor also made Harry an outcast in his own department. A cowboy, and a top performer who got no respect from his “asshole” superiors.

But Harry was clearly the most effective homicide detective on the SFPD. OK, his tactics were a little a Machiavellian at times. But he always came out on top, and he didn’t sell his soul to get there.

The lesson is about courage

Courage is a tough lesson for students and young professionals to learn. To excel in the PR/marcom world, you must think critically and independently. You must offer candid objective assessments of problems, presenting your ideas with conviction. That means being as honest as Harry Callahan, but with a dose of tact.

But that’s what the client/boss wants!¬† Yikes, how many times have I heard that one? Client service is important, sure. But our job is to deliver what the client needs, and that may be significantly different from what he wants. The courageous professional finds a way to change client thinking, but without insulting client values.

You must be candid, and you must take risks. When you find yourself working for bosses or clients who reject alternative viewpoints, move on. Quickly. You won’t learn from those who go along to get along. You’ll just pick up bad habits.

I’m not suggesting a “go rogue” approach. Dirty Harry operated outside the rules because the system handcuffed him. But you know, the same thing happens all too often where I work. How ’bout you?

There’s nothing wrong with playing nice in the sandbox. It’s called teamwork. But there IS something wrong about adopting the go-along/get-along mentality. It paralyzes organizations. It destroys careers. It makes everyone miserable.

So the next time you’re in a meeting weighing the value of candor vs. tact, mix a stronger cocktail — say, 70% candor, 30% tact — and serve it up. You may ruffle a few feathers, but in the process you may also trigger the change no one else had the courage to suggest.

Oh, yeah. It’s probably not a good idea to call your client or boss an asshole. But it’s perfectly OK to think it :-)


2 thoughts on “Lessons on candor from Dirty Harry

  1. Nice post.

    Luckily my coworkers at the creative company where I work start the day tipped in the direction of candor and sometimes forget the tact altogether, so honesty’s no problem.

    We do encounter some resistance to change from clients, though. They tend to value expert opinions, though, so again, bullet dodged.

    On this topic, the worst for me is probably yet to come.

    Stay dirty.

  2. I like the 70-30 idea, but I’m not sure there’s a definitive formula for handling people and situations. Understanding how to read and connect with people might be just as important as having backbone.

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