Improve as a Leader: Stop Lying

By October 25, 2014Leadership

I have been reading a lot of books lately about business and management and leadership. These great books are full of stories from incredible leaders about the ups and downs of team leadership and what they learned from it and I’ve decided that everything comes down to this simple success-guaranteed leadership process:

  1. Don’t lie

Nobody–especially someone in a leadership position–fails because they are lazy. You don’t become a leader if you’re lazy and you don’t fail because you started being lazy. Work ethic and motivation are not the hardest things about leadership:

The hardest thing about leadership is being honest: first and foremost with yourself, then with your team.

There are many implications, but fundamentally, I believe that

If you are honest with yourself and your team then you will tend to make good decisions, and if you make enough good decisions in a row then you will succeed.

The other thing I believe (and I think you will agree) is that honesty requires work. This is because:

  • It’s easier to make an excuse (lie) than it is to fix a genuine problem.
  • It’s easier to rationalize (lie) than it is to make a necessary change of direction.
  • It’s easier to ignore (lie) than it is to deal with a relational issue eating away at your team.

Now if this was obvious (it usually isn’t) and we understood the implications (we often don’t) then it wouldn’t be an issue. But the truth is that sometimes we lie because we just don’t care enough, sometimes we lie genuinely without knowing it and sometimes we lie because we just aren’t conscious enough of the implications. None of these reasons are worthwhile excuses so I decided I wanted to take some time reflect on how to avoid ’em.

1. Being Aware of the Implications

First and foremost it’s imperative to be constantly conscious of the long-term impact of your day-to-day decisions as a leader. It’s very easy to get so caught up in the daily grind that your sense of long term goals and whether or not you are actually making progress ends up buried in lists of tasks and issues. For the average person, no big deal. For the average leader this is the difference between failure and success. You need to be aware.

You need to be able to pull yourself out of the day to day and question whether or not you are setting the right long term goals and short term steps. Nobody else will do it because it’s nobody else’s job.

Do this: spend 15 minutes every day before you turn on your time-sucking machine (computer) thinking about the day, then the week and then the month. This simple reflection will rejuvenate your awareness and I guarantee these 15 minutes a day is a good investment.

2. Caring

There are two things about being a leader, one which is really great and one which is really frightening and they are both that people are following you.

You have the opportunity and the responsibility to make good decisions, but in some cases you will be the only one who even knows a decision should be made. This leaves the full weight and responsibility on your shoulders.

You are the one with the information, the mandate and the motivation to make the decision. It’s important to recognize and embrace the fact that nobody else is in your position, and if you aren’t taking the ownership you should then you should be honest about that and replace yourself as soon as possible.

Ask yourself this:

Is the success of the project you’re leading or the company you’re running more important to you than your position or influence?

If it isn’t, you’re going to have a hard time being honest with yourself. The less you genuinely care about the project you’re leading the easier it is to ignore the importance of your honesty as a leader.

It sounds obvious when you read it, but it’s incredibly subtle and very easy to miss this unintentional shift in your priorities. Create opportunities and discussions that force you to evaluate yourself. Reflect on why you do what you do. Allow your motivations to be questioned regularly.

Care. If you don’t, you should probably replace yourself and do something else.

3. Ignorantia legis neminem excusat

Ignorance of the law does not excuse

When leading a team or a product or a company, saying “I didn’t know” is an outstandingly poor excuse. It doesn’t excuse you from your directors or investors, and it shouldn’t. They’re counting on you to know. They are betting their money on your ability to know. Your team expects you to know. And, well, your success as a leader does genuinely hinge on your ability to “know”.

Being smart is important, but being able to build a culture of trust is far more important, especially as a leader. As a leader, despite the fact that you will be a major decision maker you will also (ironically) end up too far removed from the details to be able to spot the problems. So unless you have built a culture where your team–at every level–is comfortable saying “this is wrong” you, as a leader, will fail to “know”.

I was fortunate enough to get stuck with a boss who wouldn’t ever accept an excuse of any kind. This forced me to evaluate my mistakes and learn from them instead of rationalizing them. This distinction is absolutely critical and usually painful to learn. So if you do end up in a scenario where you didn’t know, don’t say “I didn’t know”. Instead explain why you didn’t know and what you are going to do to make sure you don’t ever not know again. This is an opportunity to fix a lack of visibility, and not taking advantage of it will hurt in the long run.

Make sure you regularly put your team in an environment where every member can reflect and feel comfortable questioning and challenging you and raising issues. Maybe it’s a weekly or even daily activity wherein everyone is given the opportunity to raise red flags no matter how grave the implications may be.

A culture of trust along with an ability to evaluate failures instead of excusing them will help you avoid situations where you find yourself wanting to say “I didn’t know”.

There is no easy way, and experience (and failure) is definitely the best teacher, but I hope this short article and few questions can help you keep yourself accountable and avoid some mistakes.

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