All evil begins with a lie. The biggest evil begins with the biggest lies. And the biggest lies are the lies we tell ourselves.
Sooner or later every leader realizes that 99% of the people he depends on for success do not report to him. A CEO’s success, for example, depends far more on vendors, stockholders, board members, government regulators, politicians, strategic partners, the financial community, the media, and –most importantly—customers than it does on the relatively small number of people he can hire or fire either directly or indirectly. Real power is built on persuasion and persuasion relies on trust.
Trust is the most powerful form of capital there is, and nothing will make your professional or personal life run more smoothly than trust. In addition, trust is not a scarce resource. We can all have more of it than we need. However while trust is not a scarce resource, it is a fragile asset. Once squandered it may be impossible to regain.
Of course the most efficient way to squander trust is by telling lies. However in my over thirty years of experience as an executive and entrepreneur, lies of the “bald face” type are relatively rare. Rank dishonesty is seldom what undermines a company, a brand, a career, or a reputation. Instead the lies that do the most damage are the subtle ones: The lies we all engage in yet rarely acknowledge.
An old axiom argues that there are lies, damn lies, and then there’s statistics, but I would contend that these common human prevarications are often even more damaging to trust because they are so pervasive and rarely considered lying.
- Self Deception. Over time most of us become very good at self-deception. Self-deception seems like an easy way to take the sting out of life: “I’m not lazy just deliberate.” Secondly, as evolutionary psychologists have pointed out, successfully lying to ourselves first makes foisting that lie on others with the proverbial “straight face” much easier. However those who indulge in self-deception are ultimately fooling only themselves.
- Rationalizations are the lies we use to escape the personal responsibility and accountability that trustworthy leaders demonstrate and demand in others. Trustworthy people don’t buffer the truth with rationalization; they face it head on.
- Procrastination is that web of lies we weave to put off doing things we know we need to do. It is extremely difficult, in fact well neigh impossible, to trust a habitual procrastinator. Rather than procrastinate, great leaders habitually do their least favorite work first.
- B.S. B.S is more than a lie. It is lying as an art form. We B.S. ourselves and others by concocting a story (or as the pundits like to say, a “narrative”) that pretends to shed light but is really designed to exaggerate, dazzle, misdirect or just confuse. The true B.S. artist is often not really bad; he is just someone who through fear and habit has forgotten where the truth ends and lying begins. But regardless, the damage that being labeled a “B.S. Artist” does to a reputation is very real. Protect your reputation every day. The best people do.
- Keeping Promises. A failure to deliver on a promise is lying pure and simple. Trustworthy people keep promises, and this habit is essential to achieving and maintaining the power a leader needs to be effective.
Ambiguity is a lie we use to avoid disappointing others without offering accountability ourselves. “We’ll see” or “I’ll try” placate while providing plausible deniability in case of failure. Great leaders ruthlessly fight their own tendencies toward ambiguity and refuse to tolerate it in others.
- Making People Ask. If you make people hound you about a debt or a promise you have already lost half of your credibility. Nothing builds trust better than anticipating your obligations and delivering on them without being asked. A debt repaid without being asked for reaps a huge dividend in trust. The money that changes hands is the same, but the trust equation is radically different.
- Failure to Communicate. There are sins of omission as well as sins of commission, and failing to communicate is a lie of omission. No one can keep all their promises, but there is no excuse for a failure to communicate that we may be unable to deliver. We often avoid communicating from embarrassment or the fear of admitting failure, but this only leads others to assume that we had no intention of keeping our promise in the first place and were hoping they would fail to notice. Great leaders preemptively send status reports. If everything is going to plan they spare others from worry. If not they give them time to go to Plan B.
Ok maybe I’m being too tough in calling habitual tardiness a lie, but that is the way I feel about it. When you are habitually late you not only waste other people’s most precious resource, time, but you add insult to injury by selfishly implying that you and your priorities are more important. Habitual tardiness is one of those almost trivial yet corrosive lies that gradually undermine a personal reputation and a professional brand. Great leaders put others first by being on time.
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A friend recently took her three-year-old son to a Halloween party dressed as a witch. At some point he held his witch’s broom over a candle until it burst into flames; a decision that, according to his Mom, considerably invigorated both the candle and the party. The next time I saw him I asked, “What happened to your witch’s broom?” Caught flat footed he hesitated. He rolled his eyes toward his mother, but finding no sympathy there he rolled them back and finally said, “It got on fire.”
Now I was caught flatfooted. I had just witnessed a three-year-old, barely able to talk, adroitly use the passive voice to lie through his teeth to avoid culpability. After all, how could he be held responsible for something the broom did? As they like to say in Washington, D. C. and now at Volkswagen’s corporate headquarters, “Mistakes were made.”
As this story illustrates so well, lying starts young and comes naturally to all the children of Eve. This story also illustrates that most lies emerge not from ignorance or even avarice but from fear. As a result, it is not enough for we mere mortals to know the truth or even to know we should tell the truth. What is required is the strength of character necessary to face the truth despite our fears and regardless of the consequences.
Thierry Koehrlen’s On the Road To Honesty campaign inspired this post. It beautifully reminds us of how important honesty is for our society and our children. Check out his website www.OnTheRoadToHonesty.com
Aristotle once said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not a choice it’s a habit.” So is telling the truth.
Editor’s note: This essay was generoulsy contributed to the On The Road To Honesty campaign by August Taruk and was also published on Fortune Magazine.
August Turak is a corporate executive, entrepreneur and award winning author who attributes much of his success to living and working alongside the Trappist Monks of Mepkin Abbey for over 17 years as a frequent monastic guest. After a corporate career with companies like MTV, August Turak founded to highly successful software businesses, Raleigh Group International and Elsinore Technologies. In 2000 he sold his companies to an Identify Software and the combined firms were eventually acquired by BMC Software for $150 million. In 2004 Turak won the $100,000 grand prize in the John Templeton Foundation’s Power of Purpose Essay Contest for his essay Brother John. He has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, and the New York Times, and is a popular leadership contributor for Forbes.com and the BBC radio show, Money Matters. Turak lives on a 75 acre cattle farm outside Raleigh, NC.”