A Question For The New Year

One of the questions I ask leaders — a question that sometimes makes them a little uncomfortable — is a fairly simple, direct one: Do you tell your people the truth? It’s a deeply relevant question, I think, as we approach the New Year.

Forget, for a moment, whether you feel your people tell you the truth, or how you feel about it on those occasions when you can prove that they don’t. (That’s actually a function of whether you tell them the truth.)

Forget about whether you think you have a good reason not to tell your people the truth. Having an organization where people can level with each other, and expect the truth from one another is an essential of accountable leadership. It’s a commitment you make. You either fulfill it and set a good example on this score, or you don’t. Are there situations where some people, from a practical point of view, don’t need to know all of the details? Sure. Do people need to know the truth about those decisions, events, and initiatives that affect them? Yes, they do. If you pretend otherwise, you’re walking down the slippery path we call “the ends justify the means” — and that is not where accountable leaders go.

Forget about “batting averages.” Sometimes when I ask a leader, during a private coaching session, “Do you tell your people the truth?” I get a list. “Well, I lied to them about A and B, but I told them the truth about C, D, E, F, G, H, I, and J, So that’s two lies and eight times where I told the truth. So my batting average is about .800, which isn’t too bad.” Nope. Lying twenty percent of the time doesn’t make you a leader with a commitment to the truth. It makes you a liar.

Accountable leadership is all about fulfilling commitments. One of the most important of those commitments is to tell your people the truth, even when it hurts. Period. No gray areas. No excuses.

Commitments are not easy. Your accountability will often be tested by challenges and conflicts: Are you going to keep your commitment even in the midst of a crisis, or when it is not in your personal best interest to do so? A commitment has to do with character. Everyone is committed when it is easy, but when a conflict shows up, so does the truth about whether or not you are committed. This is where your accountability is manifested. This is where your character is developed. This is where your team begins to tell you the truth, even when it hurts.

I’m not a big believer in New Year’s resolutions. I believe they can often do more harm than good, because people sometimes make them in December, and fall into the habit of making excuses for themselves about breaking the resolution in February. But if the calendar running out of December and taking a scoop out of January inspires you to be more accountable to your team, to make a clear commitment to your team that’s hard to back out of, a commitment to tell them the truth, even when it hurts, I’m all for it.

Just as a plant has to push through the earth to see the sun and grow, we too have to “push through” our challenges and conflicts … and make and keep our commitments. It is in those moments that we grow as people. A clear, spoken, unambiguous commitment to tell your people the truth, starting right now, will give you a better new year — and a better future. Make the commitment!

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