Five weeks ago, I started writing about leadership strategies during pre-election Scary Season. That was before RBG passed, before the debate debacle, and before the President’s sickness. With the year 2020 that just keeps coming, and with Trump’s penchant for creating drama-that-sells, it would be crazy to think that crazy is done happening. Seat belts on as you lead in these times.
I offer a short movie clip and this presidential example right in front of us to make one point about those who lead with their best self. Those who lead with their best self tell the truth. To others – yes. Yet, perhaps the biggest lie we leaders tell is the one we tell ourselves when we are in authority. No one ever said it better than Colonel Jessup (Jack Nicholson) in A Few Good Men. Treat yourself to the first minute (or the full 2:11 to see the climax). If you don’t have the time for the clip, here’s the core: Lieutenant Caffey in cross-examination blares at Colonel Jessup on the witness stand, “I want the truth,” and Jessup snaps back, “You can’t handle the truth.”
This is the greatest leadership lie: that others can’t handle the truth. The leader justifies that he or she can lie, and then lie about the lie, because others can’t handle the truth. Who can’t handle the truth?
Trump told the truth to Bob Woodward on February 7 – that he knew at that time that the coronavirus was much worse than the flu. Then 19 days later, he told the public that we should treat it like the flu and continued frequently to downplay the scope of the risk. In late March he told Woodward that he had been intentionally playing it down, because he “didn’t want to create a panic.” He might well have said: “They can’t handle the truth.”
This weekend, his doctors either chose to be spin doctors, or he is forcing them to spin. Lies beget more lies: was he on oxygen or not? It was such a simple question. And lies undermine leadership trust! We all hope Donald Trump will heal – or certainly we all should. But we are adults who can understand facts, especially from some of the most educated doctors on the planet. “We can handle the truth.”
My point is not to get political here, but to use this example to help us see that we all face choices like this. When a student complains to me about an unfair question or a client reminds me of something contradictory I said, my human nature offers me an out: to hide, obfuscate, spin; effectively to lie. I should at least tell the truth to myself about – or before – I go out and lie about it. Am I really protecting them (rationalizing that I’m ensuring their trust in the system or me), or am I protecting myself from my own fear and discomfort (at explaining or remediating)?
A best self leader doesn’t ask others to deal with the leader’s insecurity and pain. They face their challenges and invite others to rise to face their own.
Young children can’t handle the truth. Children, pre-teens, they can’t handle the full truth. If that’s who you’re leading, I get that you make exceptions to how much of the truth you disclose and at what pace. Adults can and should be allowed to handle the truth. We have some hard truths to face: climate change, technology’s elimination of jobs, the competitiveness of a global economy, Black Lives Matter and Covid. Your job – as leader – is to help people TRULY understand these forces so they can do what they can do to manage them.
Begin by telling yourself the truth as you
Lead with your best self.