Should leaders tell the truth – even when it will hurt?
It is my position that Leadership should always have the intestinal fortitude to state the hard facts about the business at all times…and then roll up their sleeves and do something about it. Why? Because we are all familiar with the expression good leaders always know what is right whereas great leaders generally ‘know what is right and then go out and do something about it.’
Great Leaders ‘do what is right’ consistently and predictably.
What are these hard facts?
Business issues like loss in market share, loss to competitors, large accounts/customers who are seeking alternative suppliers, imminent/future downsizing initiatives that are forthcoming, etc.
These hard facts or truths cannot/should not be suppressed by leadership. If they are they will never be addressed. Similarly, it is the responsibility of the leadership team (Sr. mgt. team reporting to the Leader) to have the courage to state the hard facts about the business. While this may not seem to be a normal behaviour in these politically charged and ‘job security’ frenzied days, it is a behaviour that can be both trained as well as exemplified through Leadership role modeling or ‘walking the walk and talking the talk.’
When an organization has a Leadership team who is unafraid to call out the hard facts or bad news in a timely and transparent manner, there is a better probability for the Organization to address these concerns/issues, move on and grow.
The hard facts about the business are the truths that must be told all the time…every time…by Leadership and the Leadership team!
I do not agree that leaders need to tell the truth at all times, even if it hurts.
Consider the military Organization as an example: did Hitler tell the truth to his troops when he became aware that the idea of opening up a second front with Russia was not such a good idea after all?
Did Churchill tell all of Great Britain the truth when faced with the realization that the German bombing missions over ‘Blighty’ were not going to stop anytime soon and that their pitiful assortment of beat up Spitfires and semi-adolescent Pilots were going to take a horrible beating before things would get better?
No instead he chose to make that immortal speech with the famous: “never before in the history of mankind has so much been owed by so many to so few” comment.
And that brings me to the other argument I have against the topic – you see truth is sometimes relative. In a cultural context, we may feel easy in the knowledge that we are simply telling ‘white lies’ and this is reasonably accepted in the North American context…business, social or otherwise.
Whereas in some parts of the world, there is no such thing as a ‘white lie’? You either tell the truth whole…or you are lying.
Leadership sometimes means walking a very flimsy tightrope between truth that is contextual, versus the great, all gratifying, truth – “The Truth, nothing but the whole truth so help me God!”
Leadership must indeed tell the whole truth in certain specific situations:
a. when providing feedback to individuals/teams
b. when reporting the Company Financials
c. When In dialogue with the Board and Shareholders
d. When proposing a business solution to a client
3. Other legal/statutory Information sharing and reporting
The rest of the time it remains very much up to the leader and the context as to what needs to be disclosed as ‘the whole truth’ and what may be withheld or somewhat modified for public consumption.