Leaders Always Tell The Truth

If honesty doesn’t sell, nothing should.

Last week I addressed the issue of integrity. As a leader it’s your most prized possession. You can lose it if you engage in certain behaviors, and you can keep it if you do the three things I outlined.

However, I did not mention the ultimate integrity builder or buster — honesty or the lack of it. There seems to be no middle ground. You’re either telling the truth, or you’re telling a lie.

Now that may seem too simplistic, but that’s the way employees see it. They don’t know when a lie is so small that it’s okay. And they don’t know when a lie is so big that it’s not okay. They don’t know what that line is or when it’s been crossed. So they conclude all lies count, and all your lies, no matter how big or how small, destroy their trust in you.

If you’re going to be a “real” leader, you can’t play games with honesty. You’ve got to do two things to demonstrate your absolute commitment to honesty. You’ve got to tell the truth, and you’ve got to admit your mistakes.

TELL THE TRUTH. It may not be comfortable. It may not make you look the best. But it’s the only sure way to a “working” relationship.

I like the way one wealthy individual told the truth in the New York Times way back on February 19, 1984. He was asked how he had amassed a huge fortune years before. He said, “It was really quite simple. I bought an apple for five cents, spent the evening polishing it, and sold it the next day for ten cents. With this I bought two apples, spent the evening polishing them, and sold them for twenty cents. And so it went until I had amassed $1.60. It was then that my wife’s father died and left us a million dollars.”

He told the truth. He didn’t add a few extra details. He didn’t glamorize the process. He didn’t even “stretch” the truth for a little extra impact. He just told the plain old unvarnished truth — which is what you’ve got to tell if you aspire to be a “true” leader.

Strangely enough, the truth always comes out anyway. Oh it may stay buried for a few days or even a few hundred years, but the truth always comes out. Someone eventually tells someone else his secret, or journalists and historians ask a lot of questions, or scientific research throws out the myths of the past. But the truth comes out–sometime somewhere.

When Christopher Columbus was stranded in the Caribbean and needed supplies, he knew an eclipse was going to occur the next day. He told the tribal chief, “The God who protects me will punish you. Unless you give me supplies this night, a vengeance will fall upon you and the moon shall lose its light!” When the eclipse darkened the sky, Columbus got all the supplies he needed.

But the truth does come out. In the early 1900’s, an Englishman tried the same trick on a Sudanese chieftain. “If you do not follow my order,” he said, “vengeance will fall upon you and the moon will lose its light.” The Sudanese chieftain replied, “If you are referring to the lunar eclipse, that doesn’t happen until the day after tomorrow.”

You’ve got to tell the truth, and you’ve got to ADMIT YOUR MISTAKES. Everyonel make mistakes. But what really hurts your leadership, what really makes mistakes expensive is not admitting them right away.

Unfortunately, most business cultures discourage people from admitting their mistakes. They’re indirectly taught to bury their mistakes or blame someone else.

Not Katie Paine, founder and CEO of the Delahaye Group. She instituted the “Mistake of the Month Club.” She says, “Several years ago, I overslept and missed a flight to a big client meeting. I walked into my next staff meeting, plunked $50 down on the table, and said, ‘If you can top this mistake, that money is yours’.”

Katie continued, “People started to own up to mistakes, and suddenly we had a flood of them. At every staff meeting since, we’ve set aside 30 minutes to write up the mistakes of the month on a whiteboard. Then we cast a vote. Since 1989 we’ve recorded more than 2000 mistakes. Once a mistake hits the whiteboard, it tends not to happen again. It has become a bonding ritual. Once you go through it, you’re a member of the club.”

Admitting your mistakes takes guts. But it shows character and builds trust. It is a vital piece of the honesty that makes you a leader of integrity.

Action:  Where are you tempted to tell less than “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” Be aware of those areas where you feel a need to tell a lie, even if it’s a little lie.  And then ask yourself if it’s worth it. The lie you tell may buy some temporary comfort, but it may cost you the trust of others.