Leading with the Truth

Leaders in the most healthy, open cultural environment still have a responsibility to manage information.
Leading with the Truth
In: Column, Communication, Leadership

February 22, 2010

The art of the broken campaign promise is like an elaborate childhood game played with relish by willing adult participants. Politicians huddle with their highly-paid consultants and see who can construct the most elaborate whopper. The electorate waits with bated breath, eager to see what new, phantasmagorical pledges they can pretend to believe in order to support the candidate they have already chosen. After the election, when the unfulfilled promises begin to fall to the ground like dried petals on a dying rose, the supporters sing, “It’s okay to say anything to get elected.” Detractors who try to hold leaders accountable for their rhetoric are disqualified from the game for being too partisan. And the players continue. The game is more important than the truth.

Do truth and openness bring real value to organizations? Does consistency between words and actions help build a healthy corporate culture, or are the masses better off being spoon-fed information so they can happily play the game? Managing information is a very important leadership responsibility.

At first glance, one might say, what is there to manage? Just always tell the truth and nothing but the truth. It isn’t that simple. Some truths, such as those concerning confidential personnel issues, should not be published for the good of those involved and must not become public for legal reasons. Sometimes raw data does not tell the real story unless it has context. Brainstorming sessions where any thought may be verbalized, no matter how ridiculous, provide much fodder for the shredder. And, who among us hasn’t blurted something we wish we had never said and don’t really mean in a moment of anger or weakness?

Leaders in the most healthy, open cultural environment still have a responsibility to manage information. In a positive sense, this means editing raw data so that those receiving the information have a clear sense of the realities it represents. Even those with great skill have difficulty giving the same meaning to everyone because we all filter what we receive through our personal paradigms and worldviews. It doesn’t help that we live in a divided, partisan world that has trained us to read between the lines. No communication will ever be perfect as long as humans transmit and receive.

But perfect communication is not the answer; honest communication is. Leaders should discern when they have crossed the line from editing for clarity to spinning for selfish reasons. Here are some tips for leading with the truth.

  • Do not over-promise. Make realistic commitments and focus on over-performing.
  • Do not be seduced by telling half-truths. Leaving out the rest of the story because it might influence others in a way contrary to your interests is the same as lying.
  • Ask yourself if someone in the know could read your communiqué and say, “But that isn’t true!”
  • Have two or more impartial, trusted advisors with opposing viewpoints proofread and comment on your official communications. Reward those who wisely disagree with you.
  • Solicit and listen to feedback, especially critical feedback.
  • Quickly and publicly admit mistakes and apologize.
  • If you find yourself in a meeting discussing the pros and cons of different communication strategies relative to your goals, warning bells should go off in your head. Proceed with extreme caution.
  • If you and your advisors ever begin to feel you are better than and smarter than the people you lead so it is your duty to dummy down, spin and filter information—stop! Servant leaders are humble and will not allow themselves to feel or act superior.

Honesty trumps rhetoric and builds trust. Elegant, poetic, soaring words without truth and sincerity will eventually ruin valuable institutions. Leave dissimulation to harmless childhood games. Lead with the truth!

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