Illustration: Ashley Siebels
Even the most excellent leaders sometimes find that one day, suddenly, what once worked so well to propel their rise stops working. And the very same traits that had worked for them actually start working against them. Another stellar career comes to an abrupt end.
This is the moment when leaders confront a critical and very uncomfortable question: What if there’s a gap in what I think I know?
One of the seven leadership archetypes that I outline in my book, The Leadership Gap: What Gets Between You and Your Greatness, is the Truth-Teller, who above all else, values candor. But in the face of uncertainty, someone who relies on telling the truth can bring about their own demise.
And if you’re like Michael, then leading with truth is non-negotiable.
Michael is an extremely accomplished man who embodies success. And if there’s anything that the people who work for Michael know, it’s that he has no tolerance for liars. The reason they know this is because Michael talks about it incessantly. He often pontificates about how wrong it is to lie, and how he would never do it. Unbeknownst to Michael, this drives the people around him crazy.
So when Michael discovered one day that many of the people in his organization not only did not admire him for his utmost honesty, but actually wanted to stay away from him, he was shocked to the core. He couldn’t understand why people found him difficult simply because his standards were so high.
Leadership gaps are invisible and insidious — especially to those who have them. I knew I needed to get Michael to look at himself in a way he never had so that he could rethink not only what he was saying, but what he was doing and why.
I asked him if there had ever been a time when he had lied.
At first he just stared at me, his face expressionless. But then his eyes quickly grew more intense, and his body language screamed out to me: How dare you speak to me in this way?
But after a long, pregnant pause, Michael answered.
“I didn’t take my education seriously in high school. I thought I could wing it, because everyone said how smart I was. I knew deep inside that if I would just apply myself, I would do well, but I never did. And at the end of high school my report card showed my lack of effort. I knew I was in trouble. My last chance to change things around was to do well on my SAT, so I could get into a great college and law school, and eventually become the lawyer I dreamed of being.
“But I knew I could not learn in just a few months all the information I had ignored during my four years of high school. And then an opportunity came my way that I could not pass up. Someone had stolen the SAT test. I used it to prepare myself with the exact right answers. My high score surprised everyone, including me. I was ashamed and horrified. And when I got called to the principal’s office and was asked how I did so well on the test, I lied. Big time.”
We sat in silence for a moment and then Michael regained his composure. “I promised myself, that day in the principal’s office, that if I got away with this I would never lie again.”
And there, in front of him, was Michael’s leadership gap.
Telling the truth became such a strong mantra for Michael that it was getting in the way of his ability to connect with people. But most of all, the way he prioritized truth above all else created gaps between himself and others. This insight was completely counterintuitive to him.
Michael was so afraid of anyone discovering his indiscretion that he avoided getting close to people. Meanwhile, people disliked him and would lie about his positive effect on them, which created a destructive, vicious cycle.
An executive can value the truth and still be an excellent leader; employees respect managers who can tell them the truth. Here are a few ways a leader can work on becoming an effective Truth-Teller:
Communicate everything— don’t hold back
Unless there is a specific, honest reason for not sharing information, employees should be told everything of importance to them. Managers who keep saying they have a culture of candor but aren’t truly transparent will demolish trust and create suspicion in their organization.
Create a culture of candor and solutions
Instead of blaming your employees when things go wrong, look for solutions. People should feel free to make mistakes, because it is a normal part of a person’s growth and development, and it will also prevent them from lying to cover up mistakes in the future.
Eliminate barricades of insufficiencies
Get rid of the roadblocks that keep people from performing, and do all that you can to eliminate policies and principles that create liars.
Treat everyone equally
The cultures that thrive are the cultures that continually treat everyone the same. Don’t let people feel as though they are against one another; make them feel they are important.
Model your own high standards
Do all that you can to let others know that you will not hire or tolerate liars, deceivers, and cheats. Keep your standards high, and do everything you can to reach them daily. Make truth a consistent part of your own leadership and your business.
Give them reasons to be better
Don’t allow your team to be pessimistic. Give your company and your people something to develop and grow toward. Let people know they are part of something bigger than themselves. Provide them with a vision and a path for getting there, and then reward them for being truth tellers and for speaking with candor.
Once Michael identified his leadership gap, he was able to embrace his strength of truth-telling. He could choose to be more human and empathetic.
As humans we will never be perfect, but we can be the best versions of ourselves. And the way to become the best versions of ourselves is to recognize our leadership gaps, leverage our knowledge in new ways, and stand in our greatness.
Adapted from THE LEADERSHIP GAP: What Gets Between You and Your Greatness by Lolly Daskal, with permission from Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Lolly Daskal, 2017.