How People — Perhaps You — Get into bad trouble

Last week I wrote about how vital it is to listen listen listen to younger folks who see things different than you might.  Claire Stevens, a self-described “late twenties, government worker, wife and mother” wrote a fantastic response from her perspective, which I commend to you. Her brief comment lets you listen into these 20-somethings.  Today, I suggest a way to stay out of trouble by heightening your sensitivity to another voice.

In my work in politics, coaching, in business and in non-profits, I have repeatedly seen this type of situation (an anonymous one from this past week brings me to it again):  Things are humming along. Business is growing. Optimism is high.  Often there is some risk-taking which both feels justified by the growth and is also necessary to spur further growth.  You want to talk about the success, and you also feel you have to talk about it. Often the compulsion to “spin” comes because you need money, customers, reputation, voters — at a critical juncture. 

I worked on a capital campaign once where the director would repeatedly say we had $10 million in commitments; he knew the audience couldn’t verify his statement, and he knew full well that we were just above $5 million. I’ve known candidates who had poll numbers that put them at 15% yet said they were above 25% and rising.  I’ve known business folks who sincerely believed they were going to land Client A and Client B, and prematurely told A and B that the other is “on board.”  In cases like this they minimize the untruth (if confronted they’d say “okay, technically we’re at $5 million, but we’ve had great vibes from donors that I’m sure will put us above $10 million”). They also really believe that the little spin will help build momentum which will soon blot out the fudge marks.

We’re all human — all prone to spin that grays over into half-truths or white lies. I’m no different. (See * for example below.)  My desire here is not to sound holier-than-thou (I’m decided not) or to moralize.

It’s just that the havoc that grows out of allowing (and perhaps growing) “small” concealments can become devastating.  Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick last week was sentenced to 28 years in prison; his choices helped impoverish a city and made a sad mess of his family. Could he perhaps have allowed someone to help him?

I suggest, in a way that perhaps applies to you, two things. First, find and listen to your “people of conscience.” Some folks are just strung that way, highly attuned to doing the right thing. Sometimes they’re moralistic, but actually the moralists can also be blind to their own immorality; they can be big loyalists, they trust their authority, including yours; and they worry about winning campaigns and beating the enemy.  I suggest your best bets are the ones who see the gray, who hold themselves to high standards. They’re the ones who are prone not to say, “That guys a liar,” but instead say “I might be wrong.”

My second suggestion is less idealistic than practical.  Develop a courageous narrative and exploit truth-tellingSo, that guy could have said, “We’re already at $5 million on the campaign. We think we have a great shot to be at $10 million by year-end, and you can really help us build momentum to get there.”  Now, the reality on campaigns — sales, development or political — is that success breeds success — hence the desire to spin and stretch — so this narrative may not embolden the wait-and-see folks to jump on board and write a check.  But it has two other advantages: First, with a truth-based narrative, you never have to hide, fix, or explain that narrative. Truth abides. Second truth-telling attracts and inspires others who are like-minded and trustworthy; you won’t have to worry about their bad ethical judgment undermining you.

Maybe take a minute to think about who your truth-tellers are — your gray-seers and your question-askers — who can protect your most enduring asset — your own character, as you

Lead with your best self,


*  I’ve let small overstatements of my accomplishments remain uncorrected sometimes, when I “rationalized” that it was a waste of time to correct, or a trivial mistake no one but me cared about. I was so impressed with Laura Scher, co-founder and chair of Credo Mobile who, when I inadvertently exaggerated her company’s success as I introduced her to my class, began her talk by correcting my mis-statements. She could easily have let them ride.


  • Talk about getting into trouble, “truth tellers”, but “I don’t think I might be wrong” for trying to leave and “that guy’s a liar”. I almost got abducted and maybe killed last night by my boyfriend that I keep telling that we are through. The cops did nothing even though there are cameras at White Castle, CVS and maybe Walgreens cameras got something too. I was being forced to go with him and when I had a chance to run out into the street when I seen an ambulance to get their attention I got a cop at the light instead. The cop yelled at me to get out of the road to go back to the sidewalk. I was afraid if I went back to the sidewalk the cop was going to leave me and this was at 4 in the morning. This guy was also drunk. The cop then tells me at some point, would it been better for me to get hit by a vehicle or to go with him. Dan, I asked for help and Royal Oak police made me feel like I did something wrong. They never even made out a police report and I am scared for my life. I am afraid to even walk into a police station to tell a detective what happen. The cops just let him go and told me that I don’t have to go with him, like, no kidding. The cops told us to go two different ways. He told me that he is willing to go to jail if he has to do something to me but the cops it didn’t matter what he tried to do. He was pulling me hard away from CVS when I was trying to go towards the door threatening me. This person I am talking about even put a old man in the hospital last week I was there and I tried to stop him from hurting the guy but I couldn’t. He never went to jail and that guy is still in the hospital. That could have been me last night. This beating happened under security cameras too. P

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