The Truth Shall Set You Free

"Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth," Henry David Thoreau wrote. Amen, brother.

At every level of our society in our generation, the concept of the "truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth" has taken a back seat—on its best days. On most days, it simply isn’t even invited along for the ride. The ignorance and irony of leaving the truth behind is that truth (and the willingness to speak it) is actually the foundation of immense power and true leadership. This is true in all areas of life and business.

A few examples of the conspicuous absence of truth have been particularly striking of late— not only for the obvious shocking wrongness of the statements made, but also the underlying motivation of the person who is varnishing reality.

Many of you will remember a disgraceful act committed in Florida on March 20th, 2011. A pastor led his ignorant followers in a mock trial and subsequent burning of the Islamic holy book, Qur'an. Immediately following this act of stupidity, a mullah unleashed the "faithful," who slaughtered 21 innocent United Nations workers in retribution.

As I see it, two wrongs are two wrongs. And in no uncertain terms did the burning of a book, holy or not, come anywhere close to meriting the savage murder of 21 innocent people.

But, when Gen. David Patraeus spoke about the situation, he soundly rebuked the Florida pastor with no commensurate admonition of the murderers or the victims (as reported in the WSJ April 7, 2011).

I don’t bring this difficult topic to this article for political reasons. It is relevant because Gen. Patraeus had the opportunity to speak the truth. And he didn’t. He chose instead to speak the convenient and the safe and the politically popular. See, Gen. Patraeus is rumored to be contemplating a presidential run for 2016. By speaking the truth, he would be on record as criticizing a prospective voter group: American Muslims (who had nothing to do with what happened in Afghanistan). The truth that the behavior of the extremists in Afghanistan was criminal and completely immoral could become inconvenient on the campaign trail.

A similar example occurred closer to home in March, when Warren Buffett put out a press release on a Monday notifying the business community that his longtime lieutenant, David Sokol, was "resigning." Sokol had been caught with his hand in the cookie jar by front running an acquisition of Lubrizol by Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. As the story unfolded, there was no question that both Buffett and Sokol knew what had transpired. Both knew Sokol’s behavior was unethical and likely illegal.

Rather than speak the truth, the decision was made to cast credibility to the wind and make up a story that was easier to talk about. Buffett allowed Sokol to have a hand in fabricating a "spend more time with my family – pursue my lifelong dream of starting my own company" tale. It wasn’t the truth. The truth has now come out. Both men are (or should be) shame faced and chastened by the revealed facts. In Buffett’s case a reputation built over 50 years of exemplary business performance took a tarnish. In Sokol’s case who knows. His reputation wasn’t great to begin with. The truth apparently surprised few.

The final example is very local, literally blocks away from where I write: A small private women’s college recently had a department head resign. The fact is, she is getting married and moving to a different state. The story is she became "so disgruntled with the administration that she simply couldn’t continue to be employed". Perhaps some of the frustration is true. Who doesn’t have some frustration with their employer now and then? But, to tell past, current, and future students that you are leaving for reasons that disparage the institution? And to not add in that even if you weren’t frustrated, you would be leaving anyhow because of your imminent relocation? To me, it seems to put the truth at least under a bushel basket.

Unfortunately, we could all spend days recalling a litany of lies, falsehoods, cover-ups and the like experienced in our professional lives. From the seemingly innocuous white lie to the whopper, a lie is a lie and it always has the same effect: credibility is destroyed, trust retreats, confidence to move forward erodes. It only takes one lie to start the precipitous slide.

The truth is hard. It is demanding. It is very often unpopular and unwelcome. The truth is frequently disruptive. But it is essential to progress. The truth becomes foundation for all things built. There is no progress built on a foundation of misstatements, lies, half-truths, and avoidances. Sooner or later, the truth comes out and then the reconstruction of all that was built on the falsehoods must begin. Think of all the time, energy, resources and emotional tax spent on rebuilding once the truth is known.

In a world chock full of misinformation and lies, we are all starving for the truth. We want to believe, we want to have confidence, we want to know that the path we are following is a path that is productive and will result in lasting outcomes. We don’t want to be wandering aimlessly-- or worse, to the edge of the precipice.

Your employees want the truth. They truly want to know where the company is going, where they are going in their careers, what they should be prepared for, what they need to learn to be of value in the future. If bad news is on the horizon, they also want to know that truth. Most adults can deal with challenges if they have time to prepare. What they can’t deal with is surprises that catch them unaware.

Your clients and partners want the truth. They want to know what you are really good at, what you are working on, how you can best serve and support them, where and when they should seek the services of another partner to realize their business goals. Clients want to have a relationship built on trust and an understanding of mutual benefit. If you tell your clients the truth, working with you becomes much more efficient and effective. The truth allows the client to focus on their business, and not on yours.

Managers and leaders who unfailingly tell the truth as quickly as they know it take the risk of letting their people know exactly what is going on. But they always have more engaged, more productive and more loyal teams. The truth yields trust; trust yields team work; team work yields extraordinary results; and extraordinary results yield enduring success. Employees who get used to hearing the truth will tend to tell it both to management and to customers. The truth sets everyone free to bring their full talents to work and to fully invest these talents on behalf of the company.

There is no mystery here. Having the courage to tell the truth and lead in integrity is perhaps the single most liberating competitive advantage any leader or company can command. And likely as goes our society, should you choose to embrace the truth, you will enjoy a sustainable competitive advantage that (unfortunately) few of your competitors will ever challenge.