This month's newsletter is about telling the truth to yourself and others. Truth is a fundamental value cross-culturally. It is associated with ethics, especially in relation to communication and the conduct of relationships.
This time of year, the Christian tradition has something to teach us about the importance of truth to good governance. Easter marks the trial, sentencing and execution of Jesus of Nazareth, the most famous political prisoner in history. Whether you're a believer or not, this is an important story about upholding truth as a cornerstone of civil society.
"What is truth?" asked Pontius Pilate at the trial of Jesus. It is easy to imagine a combination of skepticism, mockery, resignation, and weariness in Pilate's tone as he asks one of the most famous questions in history.
Washing his hands of the pursuit of truth, and his responsibility to uphold it, Pilate becomes the archetype of the expedient, and weak-hearted, politician. He sentences an innocent man to die. His profession has yet to recover.
Like Pilate, many of us struggle with the truth even when it stares us in the face. Seeing what is true can be disheartening. Sometimes it may seem easier not to see at all.
However, Transformational Leaders strive to uphold truth in exercising power so that the rights of all stakeholders are protected and to avoid corruption. These twin goals advance good governance and foster social cohesion.
Truth seems like a value in decline, associated with an earlier, simpler time when what you said and did was a matter of honor. Daniel Boorstin, the American professor and writer, warns us of the decline of truth in modern society: "'Truth' has been displaced by 'believability' as the test of the statements which dominate our lives."
This notion of believability has led to some famous whoppers, told by an assortment of American Presidents, over the past couple of decades:
"I am not a crook."
"Read my lips. No new taxes!"
"I did not have sexual relations with that woman."
"We have discovered weapons of mass destruction in Iraq."
The American comedian, Stephen Colbert coined the satirical term "truthiness"– the conscious avoidance of facts, logic, evidence and rational analysis – to describe the same condition.
Little wonder that public trust of politicians has plummeted. The Pew Research Center estimates that just 22 per cent of Americans trust government in Washington "almost always or most of the time."
That's the lowest percentage in the fifty-year history of the poll.
Business leaders do not fare much better, especially since the mortgage crisis in the United States.
There are three qualities that guide truth telling and help us discern truth from falsehood. These are: authenticity, factuality, andhonesty:
Authenticity is the capacity to speak and act from the heart. Remaining loyal to our values, principles and ethics is the standard by which leaders conduct themselves in order to win and hold public trust. For example, last month's newsletter dealt with the leadership of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin. His approach to addressing the sexual abuse of children by the clergy in Ireland is a good example of the power of authenticity by a leader.
Leaders who value authenticity want and need feedback. They are willing to look at themselves "warts and all." They strive to make sure that they are clear about their impact, both positive and destructive.
Charlotte Beers, former chairwomen and CEO of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, told The New York Times that explicit feedback is vital:
"That comment from one of my peers about me coming off as menacing was devastating. It was exactly the opposite of the way I pictured myself. Nothing's more helpful than finding out how others see you."
Objective feedback provides an honest assessment of when you are acting from your values and principles and when your warts are getting in the way.
Factuality means conforming to external reality. We all have a responsibility to search for facts before forming an opinion or reaching a decision. By gathering information and withholding judgment, leaders actively seek the truth before coming to a conclusion. This is especially important in conflict resolution or where issues are complex or sensitive.
The International Organization For Standardization (ISO), which promotes standards for business, government and society, suggests the following criteria to ensure a factual approach to decision-making:
Ensure that data and information are sufficiently accurate and reliable.
Make data accessible to those who need it.
Analyse data and information using valid methods.
Make decisions and take action based on factual analysis, balanced with experience and intuition.
Don't play with the numbers. Business and political leaders who attempt to falsify or spin information contribute to mistrust and scrutiny. Moreover, they are often caught at their own game and pay the penalty either through reputational damage, legal action, or both.
Honesty means that we are fair, just and morally upright in our dealings with others. To accomplish this, our thoughts, feelings and actions must be congruent. Honest people are trustworthy. They do what they say and say what they mean.
Ray Miller, Managing Partner of The Training Bank, identifies five practices of honest leaders:
"1. A Leader openly admits mistakes and failures so they can be rectified.
2. A Leader does not claim credit for accomplishments that he/she was not directly involved in.
3. A Leader maintains the highest ethical standards when dealing with customers and suppliers or vendors.
4. A Leader will keep promises or at least offer an explanation why they can't be kept (promises to co-workers, management, customers, etc.)
5. A Leader does not manipulate data or information for personal gain or protection."
Leaders need to hold their word as a sacred trust. As well, they must seek the truth rather than succumb to their own comfort zone or put personal desires over the collective good.
Integrity is the only way Transformational Leadership can be sustained. Through honesty — the application of integrity to communication — we gain and keep the support necessary to lead change in our organizations and communities.