Leadership: Getting the Truth

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“You can’t handle the truth!”

Most people know that line from the movie, A Few Good Men. But if you’re the person in charge, handling the truth is your second problem. The first problem you must solve is getting it in the first place.

If you’re a leader, the truth is hard to come by. You’ll never be able to scrape up enough facts and reliable data to be sure of any decision. You’re always “under uncertainty.”

Human nature conspires against you, too. People who work for you would prefer not to be the messenger who gets killed. They’ve seen plenty of messengers get killed over the years, so even if you’re a different kind of boss, they can’t be sure.

Then, to make things even worse, you’re pretty good at shading the truth yourself. A host of biases and a psychological tic or two can make it seem like you’re hearing the truth when you’re not.

In this post, I’m using the word “truth” in two ways. One way is that the truth is information that matches reality. The other is “truth” in the sense of “candor.” Candor is when people give you their honest judgment about something.

How do you get the truth so you can handle it? Here are four things to do.

Get Out of Your Office

John Le Carre was right. “A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world.”

When you’re in the office, you get reports and lots of filtered information. You increase the odds you’ll hear something new, fresh, and true, if you get out of your office. Whether you call it “MBWA” or whatever you choose, most great bosses do it.

Harold Washington was the head of public housing in Oakland. He used to say that reports were great, but they won’t tell you if the 8th floor landing was swept properly. That’s why he made it a point to visit the different buildings he was responsible for. He’d ride in the elevators, walk the stairs, visit the playgrounds, and chat with the residents. Sometimes, he’d ring random doorbells and ask people how things were going.

Sam Walton was fond of saying, “Nothing important happens in Bentonville.” So, he got out to visit the stores. This wasn’t a “idiot from corporate” visit, either. He walked around the stores and talked to people. He checked to see what merchandise was moving. And he always got back to Bentonville with a list of things that Wal-Mart could do better.

One way to get the truth is to get out of your office and go looking for it.

Develop Alternative Sources of Information

Every great boss I’ve observed or worked with has developed a way to get alternative information. My boss, and later mentor, Leonard Tompkins, was the head of a small corporation, but he opened the mail every day. Most of the successful leaders I’ve seen look for ways to find out about what’s going on without getting a report.

One successful executive I know worked for a company with plants in several towns. He subscribed to the newspapers for all those towns. He learned things he would not have learned otherwise about what was going on in the field.

Find and Treasure Your Truth-Tellers

Every organization has people who aren’t afraid of you. They’ll tell you what they think, no matter what. Most of the time, those people aren’t beholden to you.

In one company I worked with, there was a man who had been with the founder since the beginning. The company outgrew his skillset. He was still there because the founder could ask what he thought about almost anything and get an honest opinion.

Most of the time, you must go outside your sphere of influence to get that kind of honesty. Coaches are a great source. Many leaders belong to peer support groups. They’re made up of other people in similar jobs, but in different companies.

Don’t Kid Yourself

Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman said, “You must not fool yourself. And you are the easiest person to fool.”

Most of us think our performance is far better than it is. 80 percent of drivers, for example, say they’re in the top half of all drivers.

We judge ourselves differently than we judge others. We judge others by the effect of their behavior. But we judge ourselves by our intent. Not only that, we are “conformation bias on parade.”

This is particularly deadly for you as a leader. You can kid yourself into thinking you’re doing research to evaluate your opinion, when you’re just gathering support. And the people who work for you know what you want and are likely to help you confirm your cherished ideas.

Bottom Line

Getting the truth and honest opinions is important if you want to be the best leader you can be, but it’s devilishly hard.

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