The Truth of the Matter

One of the best pieces of dialogue from a movie is the famous part of “A Few Good Men” with Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson. It’s the line where Nicholson says “You want the Truth.” 

Except he never said that. 

He never said “YOU want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!”

The real truth is many people have been quoting “A Few Good Men” wrong for years. Jack Nicholson actually says “You want answers?” Then Tom Cruise says “I think I’m entitled to them!” Nicholson asks again “You want answers?” To which Cruise replies “I want the truth!”

It is only then that Nicholson serves up the famous line “You can’t handle the truth!”

We don’t even know the truth around perhaps the most famous movie line about truth ever.

Leaders struggle with the truth too. They don’t, at least most don’t, struggle with telling the truth, they struggle with being told the truth. Most leaders don’t know they struggle with this because they naively believe their people trust them enough to always be truthful. 

However, given the nature of power and authority, it is actually common for people to limit the information they provide to their leaders. They might think that they are protecting themselves or a colleague from the leaders wrath…or worse. They might even think they are in some way protecting their leader but in either case it is unlikely that the leader is always getting a clear picture of what’s going on in their organization.

Many leaders may not like this, they may not want to hear it or believe it but the truth of the matter is, very often the information they receive from their people is at least “filtered” to some degree. It may even be an outright lie.

If you’re a leader who truly wants the truth from your people, consistently and bias free, then you will need to help them deliver it to you. Help them by actively seeking this kind of communication without punishing them, in any way, for the content.  

Always ask for differing opinions, encourage people to provide you the real story, ask them to trust you enough to share the truth. (Yes, one of the major reasons your people don’t tell you the whole truth and nothing but the truth is that they don’t trust you’ll handle it well)

When I say don’t “punish” them for the content I mean don’t punish them in any way. DO NOT get defensive. DO NOT raise your voice. DO NOT tell them they are wrong. In fact, DO NOT react in any way that would give anyone the impression that you are the least bit unhappy about what you just heard. DO NOT react in any way that would give anyone any reason to believe that they could be in “trouble” for telling you the truth or having an opinion that may differ from yours.

Just say “thank you for the courage to share that with me. Let me think on that for a bit and when I have my head around it we can talk again.” 

If you want the truth then you had better be prepared to handle it. Your facial expressions, your tone of voice, and your words really do matter. 

You know that you perform better when you have better, more truthful information. You also need to know that you won’t get it if your people think it’s too “dangerous” to give it to you. If you want the truth you’re going to have to work for it. That “work” likely includes changing some of your  behavior to help your people feel more comfortable when providing the information you need to truly lead.

And that’s the truth of the matter.


9 thoughts on “The Truth of the Matter

  1. Thanks for another great post Steve. Even after years, I am convicted by the tendency some team members have for feeling like they need to withhold facts or information from me. I know most do it because of the way I react. Some of my team members trust me enough to say things I disagree with, but often, many think it is their job to guess what I’d like to hear. They think if they guess well, they’ve done a good job.

    Thanks for the reminder. I know most often the problem is on my side of the teeter-totter. Now if I could just fix that guy! Mike…

    1. Thanks Mike, it really is on us as leaders to create an environment where people can tell us the truth knowing without a doubt that there will be zero retaliation. Easier said than done!

  2. Spot on Steve! Few would argue that listening is an essential skill in leading others effectively. “Handling the truth” is perhaps the hardest part of listening well. Ultimately the maturity of the leadership in an organization can be measured by the speed at which bad news travels to the top.

    1. Thanks Susan, I always know an organization has issues when I hear “don’t let “the boss” know. The odds are “the boss” taught their people to withhold information whether they were doing it intentionally or not.

      Sadly some people in leadership positions actually do it on purpose, I guess it’s easier than sticking their head in the sand.

      Thanks for your comment, I hope all is well with you!

  3. Good post Steve.

    One of my favorite quotes is ‘Denial isn’t a river in Egypt.’ ( grins )

    The truth of the matter is that truth matters all the way around yet honesty, for the most part, is not rewarded. The boss can’t make good decisions if I’m not honest or withholding all the facts and it’s equally true that I can’t make good decisions if a boss isn’t honest with me and withholds information. I’ve been on both sides of the equation.

    That said, there is so much that we think is true in this day and age that winds up not being true at all, that I’ve grown to the point where I end up questioning everything.

    Example, I’m taking a nutrition class in addition to the 2nd half of anatomy + physiology right now and I’m learning that so many things we thought were true back in the 80’s and 90’s regarding nutrition just want true at all! Back when fats were demonized and so many products were fat free but loaded with sugars….all which winds up getting stored as fat…sigh…

    I’ve had to come do accept that the truths I think I know may eventually not true at all, so in light of this I endeavor to be as honest as I can about what I think and feel…and even then….not everyone wants to know our truths. So I’ve learned that yes…not everyone can handle the truth or even wants it. Which tosses a whole new monkey wrench into the honesty equation! 😃

    As for A Few Good Men…who can play a better jerk than Jack Nicholson!? They couldn’t have picked a better actor for that role as Col. Jessup!

    Oddly though…despite the fact that a man like that should not be in power, there were elements of truth in what he said except they are being said with such arrogance and pomp…which is what made his character dangerous because he felt he was above the law.

    His lines here riddled with some truths….

    ‘You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall. We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said thank you, and went on your way, Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon, and stand a post. Either way, I don’t give a damn what you think you are entitled to.’

    As a woman whom has served her country, I can’t deny that I have felt similar ( without the extra arrogance) when I’ve listened to people who feel entitled and never have.

    If our country wasn’t so quick to jump to war, I would recommend most people to serve in some fashion….especially in humanitarian aid….not just defense.

    Thanks again for sharing Steve.

    1. Facts change but truth never does. Some of the facts we “knew” about nutrition years ago were indeed wrong but that didn’t mean the people sharing them were lying…they just got the facts wrong.

      It happens to Donald and Hillary all the time. 😊

      And yes, there were many “truths” in that great movie. One thing the movie got wrong….it DOES matter how we provide that blanket of freedom. If we do it at the expense of our values and integrity then the freedom really isn’t worth what we think it is.

      Hope school is going well, I’ll bet you’re getting smarter by the day!

      1. Yes it does matter how we provide that blanket of freedom and I haven’t been happy with how it is being provided for many years now.

        I haven’t given up on my country but I have given up in our system. It needs to change because the government has proved over and over again that it isn’t working effectively the way it is.

        And a house divided will not stand.

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