Truth and Trust

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Perhaps we can be excused a little cynicism when politicians call for greater honesty in public life.

For politicians and business schools honesty is part of an optional ethics course. Politicians opt in and out of honesty as necessary.

For leaders, honesty is neither optional nor is part of the ethics course. It is part of the mandatory survival course.

As leaders, we need followers. A leader without followers might be a genius like Einstein, but it is hard to lead when no one follows. As a rule, people do not follow leaders they do not trust. Trust has three main elements:

  • Competence: can you do what you say?
  • Risk: I might trust you with my project, but not with my life
  • Honesty: can I trust what you say?

In business, the honesty bar is high, in politics it is low. An honest politician is one that has not been caught red handed lying through his or her teeth. For a leader, shading the truth, hiding the truth, spinning the truth and not being open is as corrosive of trust as outright lying. Occasionally we have to deal with harsh truths when followers do not live up to expectations: honesty is not an ethical utopia where everything is sweetness and light. It can be hard and demanding. It can even mean admitting to personal failings.

Of course, this does not mean that there are no dishonest businessmen. Even Adam Smith believed that business people “seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public.”

In the City, the motto used to be “My word is my bond”. The city, like the motto may have changed out of all recognition. But for leaders, the motto remains good: trust is the most valuable currency we have and is easily lost.

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