By Tim Hayes
She was busted, and she knew it. I had her dead to rights. One of my daughters, maybe three years old at the time, with her hand literally in the cookie jar. So I removed the treat from her little fist, sat her on my fatherly lap, and asked if she wanted to tell me anything.
“Yes, Daddy,” she said, her wide green eyes peering remorsefully up at me. “Can I have my cookie back now?”
Art Linkletter, wherever you are today, you were right. Kids do say the darndest things. What’s weird sometimes, though, is that some of the brightest, most savvy adults in the business world – when they get caught with their hand in the cookie jar – can be just as defiant as a three-year-old who wants that damn cookie back.
As a professional consultant and writer to CEOs and other leaders, I am occasionally left slack-jawed, flat-footed, and dumbfounded by how obtuse such otherwise smart and admirable individuals can be in these situations. My advice is always to tell the truth – and to be the first one to tell it, before others can establish a baseline narrative that forces my client into a reactive stance. Mom was right, the truth will always come out, and if it’s different than what she heard in the first place? Oooo, there’s a world’a hurt comin’ your way, Bubba.
Leaders like to be admired and emulated. Honesty, trust, and credibility form the foundation. Ethics, wisdom, courage, and humility build the structure. A leader shooting for a bronze bust tomorrow but who has clay feet today won’t make it. When you’re not structurally sound in the eyes of those looking to you for leadership, sooner or later things will go south – hard, fast, and ugly.
I have known business leaders with intimidating top-floor corner offices who got caught in peccadilloes, running shady books, and other such malfeasance. A handful bullied their way back to pre-eminence through sheer force of personality, intimidation, and other behavior roughly equivalent to stocking the castle moat with hungry alligators. So that method can work, I suppose.
But the ones who took to heart the quaint, crocheted, Whitman’s Sampler wisdom of honesty indeed being the best policy usually came out of their firestorm better people and better leaders. They had proven themselves worthy of their position by admitting their mistake, apologizing for it, and establishing a road back.
They may not have always kept the corner office (although most did, by the way), but at least they could live with the reflection in the mirror every morning. And in my book, that’s a higher victory than crouching behind a parapet, clutching onto a great title, yet having no supporters, believers, or friends.
Copyright 2009 Tim Hayes Consulting