To Tell The Truth


Do you have what it takes always to be truthful? Am I always fully honest? No, I have to admit. Do I always tell the truth and nothing but the truth? No. Do I sometimes leave out information, without actually lying? Yes.

How honest can you be? Interviewed in the Financial Times, Larry David, the creator of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, was asked about what stops him from being brutally honest, like his character in the TV series. His response: ‘Somebody would beat me up every day. You can’t be that honest and function in society.’

Business, like the rest of life, is all about people. That means that the social rules that apply to life in general also apply to leadership. The basics hold true: do what you have said you will do and keep your promises, be on time and don’t lie. The concept of truth is central, and often hard. There are at least two senses in which we can tell the truth:

A. Stating your opinion, or being honest about your feelings and opinions.
B. Admitting something that is not known by others, or revealing the true state of things.

I think it comes down to this – honesty and revelations. The first one is mainly motivated from within, while the other one is driven by external factors. When Billy Bibbit tells Nurse Ratched in the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest that he is not ashamed about sleeping with Candy, he is telling the truth about his feelings. This is an example of type A telling the truth. And he gets terribly punished for it. A so- called whistle blower at a company, revealing dirty secrets and uncovering a scandal is a type B truth-teller.

In one of my companies, a key person showed bad judgement. He was going to buy some old stock options from the company and on the last day before the options expired, he came back and offered a very low price. Now, we had no chance of finding another buyer and the price was very different from the one we had agreed with the shareholders.

When I called him about the matter, I did not really tell the truth, I was not honest. I presented the problem as something that mainly concerned his forcing the board of the company to make a difficult decision by offering a lower price at the last moment. The real problem was not the stock options but the trust issue that this had created. Given this behaviour, did we want him to continue to be involved in the company? Directly addressing the issue of trust would have been honest. I did get around to it a couple of days later, when things had settled down a bit. But telling the truth up-front is hard.

Although President Nixon never formally confessed to any wrongdoings in the Watergate Scandal, he was under enormous public pressure to reveal what had really happened and his role in the affair. People wanted him to tell the truth, in a type B sense of the term. They wanted him to reveal something that he was hiding. If you have a secret lover, are using company funds for your own interests or do not possess the diploma you said you have, you are not telling the truth as understood in the example B above. You are not revealing the true state of matters.

Happily, the matters in which we are most often dishonest are more banal, like telling a white lie to avoid a dreadful meeting. Oscar Wilde, the famous British author and dandy, said: ‘A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.’

To tell the truth in all cases without any filters is probably social suicide. Our society is actually built on a small amount of healthy deception. Many of us have probably told someone ‘you look great’ when they in fact look miserable. If you care about the relationship, you generally don’t tell someone that they look awful, even if they do. The truth is often painful, and it can be used as a weapon, too. However, it is easier to tell the truth if the other person trusts you, and if you say it with empathy and concern. As a rule, you can say what you want and tell the truth if you say it with respect. If your friend looks awful and you are worried about their health, it may be that you can share this honest opinion with them if you do so with respect and regard for their feelings.

You should not only speak the truth when there is a truth to tell, instead, actively look for truths and tell them, so you don’t miss any. Make it a rule to tell the truth. Seek out truths that need to be told. That is an active mindset. Let me give an example.

Whenever I do a board presentation, I start with a slide I call ‘Good and Bad News’. I summarize the positive points I want to highlight, but I make sure to scan for any negative information that I think should be disclosed. To be on the active lookout for bad news is not a negative or pessimistic mindset, it is rather a way to try to tell the whole truth. It is so easy to forget or downplay the uncomfortable parts. It is human nature to shy away from the hard stuff and pretend it does not exist. The truth will always show up in the end anyway, and it is better that you tell the truth before someone else thinks you’re hiding it.