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Leaders Removed from the Truth

The higher you rise in organizational leadership, the harder it is to get the factual information you need

“THOSE AT THE TOP,” says Navy submarine Captain David Marquet, “have all of the authority and none of the information. Those at the bottom have all the information and none of the authority.” (Quoted by Simon Sinek in Leaders Eat Last)

This phenomenon can be found in every organization, even relatively small ones: The higher you rise in organizational leadership, the more removed you are from the vital facts and real knowledge you need to make good decisions. This problem is obviously aggravated by the greater complexity and multiple lines of reporting involved, but it’s more than that. One of the greatest causes is rooted in normal predictable human nature.

Reluctance to tell the truth

I was recently reading from the writings of the great philosopher and mathematician, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662). In his Pencées #100, he addresses the problem “princes” of his time had in learning the truth:

“If anyone has some interest in being favored by us, they are averse to providing service they know to be disagreeable. They treat us as we wish to be treated. We hate the truth, and they hide it from us. We desire flattery, and they flatter us. We like to be deceived, and they deceive us.”

“Yes-men” are not a purely modern phenomenon. Substitute CEOs for princes in these sections, and Pascal’s observations are as contemporary as Monday morning, though written more than 350 years ago:

“So each degree of good fortune which raises us in the world removes us further from truth, because we are most afraid of wounding those whose affection is most useful and whose dislike is most dangerous. . . . To tell the truth is useful to those to whom it is spoken, but disadvantageous to those who tell it, because it makes them disliked.”

There is nothing more human than self-interest, and those who surround a leader are always keenly aware of it. Pascal goes on:

“Now those who live with princes love their own interests more than that of the prince whom they serve; and so they take care not to confer upon him a benefit so as to injure themselves.”

This dynamic is logical and predictable. When dealing with powerful authorities, people will filter their words and actions through the lens of their own self-interest. This is not cynicism. It’s common sense.

Therefore, the challenge for any leader is to speak and act so as to overcome people’s natural reluctance to tell the truth, not to pretend it doesn’t exist or expect it to go away.

Truthtelling cannot be forced

Countless would-be leaders have believed they could simply order subordinates to tell the truth and give them accurate information. One of the most famous examples is this line attributed to movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn: “I don’t want any yes-men around me. I want everybody to tell me the truth even if it costs them their jobs.”

People aren’t that stupid. Punishing them after the fact for failing to supply facts will not encourage survivors to speak up. It only hardens their determination to preserve their backsides and further deceive. Another consequence of such foolish authoritarianism is the suppressing of efficiency, effectiveness, and creativity in the organization. People who are worried about self-preservation burn too many brain cells and energy to be creative, innovative, or productive.

I would like to suggest some ways for a wise and determined leader to make improvements in this area.

Prerequisites for the leader

When you are in leadership, it always begins with you. What you want other people to do is secondary. If you want to build an organization or team that practices truthtelling and sharing truthful information:

  • You must be intellectually honest with yourself

Look at your past behaviors and ask: “Have my words and actions encouraged truthtelling, or have I discouraged it by reacting negatively?” This requires the qualities of self-awareness and intellectual honesty.

  • You must have the genuine desire to hear negative information

One of the worst things that can happen to any leader is to be cut off from true information about what is going on. While it’s natural to dislike hearing bad news, it is critically important to hear it. You must genuinely want to hear the truth, whether you will like it or not, or people will clam up around you.

  • You must apply self-discipline to restrain your reactions

Impulsiveness in a leader is hazardous. How much more when the impulse is to lash out and punish the messengers of bad news. This means anyone who wants to lead effectively must diligently cultivate self-awareness and practice self-discipline in words and actions. Just a few mistakes in impulsive negative reactions can ensure that your sources for learning the real facts will dry up.

What you can do

When you as leader have applied the preliminary considerations above, there are several things you can do to encourage truthtelling in your organization or team:

  • Begin with cultural values

The overall (and never-ending) task is to develop a healthy, values-based culture by design. Culture is the sum total of the purposes, values, expectations, and behaviors of a group. It won’t matter how positive your own behavior is, if at the same time backstabbing and subterfuge are practiced by other leaders in your organization. You must permeate the entire group with the values and behaviors you want to promote.

  • Build and protect a sense of safety

Before people will tell the truth, they must believe they are in a place where it is safe to do so. Your example of receiving the truth openly and positively is critical to setting and maintaining that value. You must also insist that all other leaders do the same. Without the perception of safety, none of these other principles will change much.

  • Reward those who speak the truth

Behavior that is rewarded will be repeated. You want to make heroes out of those who speak and act according to the best interests of the organization.

  • Go see for yourself

During World War II, General Patton insisted that officers make regular visits to the front lines. The purpose, he said, was “to observe, not to meddle.” He explained: “Your primary mission as a leader is to see with your own eyes and be seen by your troops while engaged in personal reconnaissance.” Organizational leaders should do the same.

Another saying of Patton’s: “Information is like eggs; the fresher the better.” Regular LBWA tours (Leading By Walking Around) are incredibly valuable for learning truthful and timely information.

  • Promote horizontal communication and relationships

Organizations typically emphasize communicating vertically. Most, however, struggle at sharing information and cooperating horizontally across divisional lines. The top leaders of a group can improve this by openly seeking to build relationships across lines and enthusiastically collaborating toward organizational success, and teaching that this is desired behavior for all.

  • Push decision-making down to those closest to the action

Recall Captain Marquet’s observation at the beginning of this article. The challenge is to push authority for decision-making down to those “who have all the information”: Those closest to the front lines. By promoting desired cultural values and behaviors ─ and by building an atmosphere where telling the truth is desired and safe ─ team members can be empowered to act with confidence.

By applying these practices, leaders can have greater confidence that they hearing the vital and timely truth they need. Li

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