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.
Another excellent blog post! The only exception I would take is younger people can and should be told the truth with the right psychological scaffolding put in place in how the details are shared. Modeling truth telling to children is critical for their development.
Dana, Your comment struck me as about as stark a contrast as I could imagine with Coach Hoff’s comment above yours. Thanks for your belief in kids!
I am humbled by your extensive research. And your argumentation. You must be (or were?) a rigorous civics teacher
With the due respect you’ve shown me I feel I owe you a response. I agree with your belief that leadership is not one size fits all. It must be responsive to context. You, dear friend, have taken your historical figures and your current political figures quite far out of context, as you line them up against the Trump foil I have used to decry lying. For instance, Trump has deceived the American people – not once after Pearl Harbor – but daily and for months. And you take Jan/Feb statements by Fauci and Pelosi – for which they later apologized when they learned the public health facts – and compare that to Trump’s REPEATED lies?
But before I get carried away, note that your argument does a great disservice to my point, when I say this is “not political.” We can argue the politics, and I will return there in a moment. But the point is that all of us lead, and all of us face questions about how honest we will be. That is my core argument. I would prefer that you argue those points. When you were a teacher or coach and made real mistakes, did you admit or conceal? And when you concealed, did you justify your concealing on the basis that you had to preserve your authority, i.e., that it was for their benefit? I suspect there were more than a few. That was my core point and I feel a little disappointed that you didn’t engage with that argument. Can leaders be cheerleaders – which I take as your central objection? Sure, of course. Every coach knows this. Every parent knows this. But even when your 10 year old is sick with a serious disease, you don’t just cheerlead. FDR hardly got us out of the recession by telling people it would magically disappear. He told hard truths and marshalled a plan.
And in the olden days of Eisenhower and FDR, when there wasn’t the kind of transparency there is today, yes you could conceal quite a bit. But with adults and in this day and age, we hold leaders to standards that are high. They’re not just morally high. They’re practically high standards. You build capacity when you build people. You destroy capacity when you lie to people, because they can’t do their work. That’s the point here.
As to the politics, it is not as though the president in one single deceitful moment misled the American public. Again, Fauci practices epidemiology and rues the fact that his earliest statements misled people. Are you SERIOUSLY arguing that’s equivalent to Trump’s continuing lies and lack of accountability? And, Pelosi wears a mask (and please God don’t come back with the false equivalency of her stupid hair appointment). Meanwhile, Trump’s mocking Biden for wearing a mask would just be a wonderful Greek myth, with which the teachers at our alma mater could teach “irony,” “hubris” and “tragedy,” but for one thorny problem. This ain’t fiction. This real. 200,000 plus people have died, the second wave is double the first in May, and at least 20 leading Trump Republican PEOPLE are sick TODAY because of this real person’s ongoing LIE.
You and I have both watched Pelosi and so many other leaders – including MANY good Republican leaders – wear masks. You are a coach Dan for all those years. Tell me that modeling the way was not important! Tell me that you didn’t tell your boys that their behavior on the courts and fields said more than the words that they expressed! In other words Trump even tonight with his mussolini-like balcony theater “triumph over covid” (which makes Bush’s victorious landing on the aircraft carrier look like a miniscule act of premature pedantry) ACTS another lie. It’s like a 1960s dad telling his son, “cigarettes don’t hurt nobody. Strong guys like us we puff away.” But no, with Trump it’s like a 1990s dad. And in this white house, like the country squire I grew up in, all the windows are sealed closed. The presidential limo seals out chemical attack, so the secret service guys inside it will just have to breathe Trump’s poisoned breath, so he can wave to his fans. How many times were you told – how many times did you tell your players, “Actions speak louder than words.”
So, Dan, I didn’t really want to get political. I used a lot of restraint when I wrote that column. But you wanted me to get political with you, and I did, as you say with respect.
The problem with the truth today is that there is a question asked: Who will be the arbiter of the truth? There is an industry which specializes in creating doubt. Imagine the morals of a person who takes the job of creating doubt when the facts are clear. There is an industry to smear public speakers, so that what ever they say is not trusted. Who takes these jobs?
I think this is one of your best articles, if not the best. I would add one thought. Many years ago, I committed myself to the position that if someone lied to me, in some way it was my fault. While there have been instances when I’ve concluded it wasn’t my fault (being intentionally manipulated), I think you put your finger on what I was looking for–an understanding of why the person(s) didn’t think I could handle the truth, or trust it with me. As for myself, I’m not always forthcoming about my personal life–especially as an introvert. I tell myself I’m a private person and have a right to guard my privacy. But, underneath it all, I have to admit I withhold from those that I don’t trust to honor a personal self. It’s true that lies beget more lies and, equally true, that truth begets more truth. But before that comes trust. Trust is crucial in the begetting of more truth–and that’s something we have precious little of in America today.