Last week, we learned that the NBC anchor person Brian Williams lied in 2003 about his involvement in a Gulf War helicopter raid, saying that he’d been riding in a Chinook Helicopter that was hit by an RPG fired by Iraqi ground troops. It turns out that he was in a helicopter that night, but miles away from the one that was under fire. At no time, according to reports, was Mr. Williams in any danger as his recounting of the incident would lead us to believe.
Since this revelation, Williams has been crucified in the press and on every news channel. Poor Brian Williams. He let his “truth guard” down and got clobbered – and well he should. We look to journalists especially to be truthful and unbiased in their reporting, and we certainly don’t expect one to lie just to puff up his own image of being a fearless war correspondent. But it reminds me of how easy it is to stray from the truth and how important it is to stay vigilant – to keep our “truth guard” up.
When our book, Absolute Honesty, Building a Corporate Culture That Values Straight Talk and Rewards Integrity was published in 2003, I was interviewed on a morning talk show about the book’s message. The show’s host, Pat McMahon asked me, “Are you telling us that we should be absolutely honest?” And I replied, “Of course.” (This was shortly after the ENRON debacle so being honest was a hot topic.)
Then Pat said:
“Ok, Larry, let’s imagine that your 16 year old daughter is coming down the stairs on prom night, wearing a dress you hate. And she asks you, ‘How do I look daddy?’ What would you say to her?”
I thought a moment and replied, “Well Pat, I’d look her right in the eye… and lie through my teeth.” To which he said, “But I thought you said you should be absolutely honest,” and I said, “Yeah, but not absolutely stupid.”
It was one of my better come-backs, and it got a great laugh from the studio audience. Then, however, he nailed me with this question: “OK, Larry, but when WOULD you tell her the truth?”
Yikes! In other words, although we all tell white lies, when does a “white lie” become unacceptable dishonesty? When is it NOT OK to fudge the truth? And, of course, for most of us, that depends on several things: Who will it hurt? Is it worth the hurt? Will it sacrifice my integrity or reputation? Is it legal? Is there a greater purpose to be served by being truthful?
Obviously, in the hypothetical case of my daughter’s prom dress, telling her the truth at that point would have served no purpose but to ruin her evening. And it would have been selfish of me to do so, just so I could think of myself as “honest.” On the other hand, if wearing the dress could endanger her safety or her reputation, it might be the right thing to do, regardless of the grief we both would suffer from the ensuing screaming and crying. That would be serving a greater purpose.
Of course, to do that, I must be aware of where I draw the line on such things. In other words, be cognizant of my criteria for NOT telling a white lie and to keep my “truth guard” up and active enough to apply this criteria when circumstances call for it.
As managers, we often run into situations where we must keep our “truth guard” up. If we allow our subordinates to submit shoddy work, or behave in an unacceptable manner, we are, in essence, telling a lie. Our failure to act conveys a message that it’s OK, which is a lie. And it wasn’t that we intentionally committed the falsehood, it’s just that we were lazy about keeping our “truth guard” up.
I doubt that Brian Williams, prior to the event, ever thought consciously that if he got near a hot battle zone, he would lie to make it sound like he was an actual participant. I think that when he returned to base and started reporting the incident, he got caught up in the excitement of it all and just let his “truth guard” down. And of course, once he told the lie once, he had to continue telling it, lest he be found out. In fact, it’s likely that over the years, he probably began to actually believe that he really was on that Chinook.
So where’s the lesson here?
In a study of honesty among teenagers, social psychologists David Maxwell and Joseph Brenny asked a group of 15 teenagers to toss bean bags at a board with three holes of decreasing size. The teenagers were told that they would be paid $3 for every bag that went through the smallest hole, $2 for the medium hole and $1 for the largest. The kicker was that the teenagers were on the honor system to report their scores and collect their money. And, surprise, surprise 80% of the subjects lied in order to inflate their scores. Maxwell and Brenny knew this because they had secretly video taped to experiment.
Then, the two researchers brought in another group of 15 teenagers to repeat the experiment, but this time, before the fun began, each teenager was asked to sign an honor code, promising in writing to be honest. Low and behold, 80% of this group told the truth.
It seems that when the need to be honest is alerted in one’s consciousness, one is more likely to be honest – to have his or her “truth guard” up. Which speaks to the need for managers and leaders to reemphasize the importance of honesty and moral behavior on a regular basis, whether it be in regular communications, team discussions or corporate-wide meetings. And of course, since leadership is more about what people see you do than what people hear you say, practicing honesty with every action you make is probably a good idea – unless, of course it’s your daughter asking you how her dress looks on prom night.