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.

 

Truth, Honesty and Brian Williams

If you like your insurance, you can keep it, period.

Seems like a pretty straightforward and simple sentence, but as it turned out… not so much. President Obama made that statement countless times through the past several years as he campaigned for the Affordable Care Act. I have no way to know whether it was an honest statement, but it clearly was not the truth.

Obviously, The President did not tell the truth when he made that statement, but it doesn’t mean he isn’t an honest person. He simply could have gotten it wrong. He and virtually no one else involved in the crafting of the law truly understood what it was. Everybody is still learning it’s impact even today.

Just an aside, that isn’t necessarily bad leadership, The President may have just decided to get passed what he could get passed and figured he could and would fix it later. Sometimes when we wait for perfect we end up with nothing. You can argue all you want that in this case nothing would be better than what we got but those kinds of differences of opinion are what got horse racing it’s start.

Which brings us to one Mr. Brian Williams, the anchor for a major network’s nightly news broadcast. For the last few years he has been telling the story of his time in Iraq early during the U.S. invasion. As he tells it, or told it, the helicopter he was riding in came under enemy fire and was hit by an Iraqi Rocket Propelled Grenade. He said their “bird,” as the military pilots call it made a swift and hard hard landing.

He told the story with emotion and intensity and who wouldn’t – that has to be a life experience that would never be forgotten. Or confused.

It seems the other people on the helicopter, and the other helicopters in the formation remembered those events differently. Quite a bit differently.

When confronted with the “inconsistencies” in his version of events his response was something along the lines of “oh yeah, that’s right it was the helicopter in front of us that was hit. He said he wasn’t lying it was just a simple mistake, one caused by time and the fog of battle.

I’ve never been in battle but I was robbed at gunpoint a couple of times when working in my Grandfather’s grocery store. I can still see the rifling in the barrel of the gun as it was up against the bridge of my nose. There is no way I would confuse that, there is no way the kid next to me would ever think the gun was actually against his head. No way!

There is a difference between truth and honesty. We can be honest and still not tell the truth. Being mistaken doesn’t make us a liar, it might make us incompetent but incompetence doesn’t make someone a liar either.

Brian Williams is a very competent news professional. We can’t really know if he was purposely lying. He really may have been confused, he may have actually thought he was shot down, maybe he thought he was the first man on the moon too. Or maybe he was just lying through his teeth.

There is no way to know what he was thinking but I do know which option is easiest to believe.

Which brings us to you… and all leaders.

Credibility is a fragile necessity of leadership. Credibility is required to lead and while it’s obvious that being caught in a lie can destroy it we forget that a “mistake” can destroy it too.

We don’t know what was in Brian Williams’ heart as he told his story of Iraq but as leaders we know that even if it was an honest mistake his credibility is gone. It’s way too hard for way too many people to believe it was a simple mistake. He is a person who works in the credibility business and his credibility is shot even if his helicopter wasn’t.

As a leader you are in the credibility business too, your business may not be as public as Brian Williams’ but to the people you lead your credibility is every bit as important.

Never forget, you can be an honest person and still not be telling the truth. If you’re not sure about something then say you’re not sure. When you are careless with the truth your people will soon care less about following you.