How People — Perhaps You — Get into bad trouble

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Last week I wrote about how vital it is to listen listen listen to younger folks who see things different than you might.  Claire Stevens, a self-described “late twenties, government worker, wife and mother” wrote a fantastic response from her perspective, which I commend to you. Her brief comment lets you listen into these 20-somethings.  Today, I suggest a way to stay out of trouble by heightening your sensitivity to another voice.

In my work in politics, coaching, in business and in non-profits, I have repeatedly seen this type of situation (an anonymous one from this past week brings me to it again):  Things are humming along. Business is growing. Optimism is high.  Often there is some risk-taking which both feels justified by the growth and is also necessary to spur further growth.  You want to talk about the success, and you also feel you have to talk about it. Often the compulsion to “spin” comes because you need money, customers, reputation, voters — at a critical juncture. 

I worked on a capital campaign once where the director would repeatedly say we had $10 million in commitments; he knew the audience couldn’t verify his statement, and he knew full well that we were just above $5 million. I’ve known candidates who had poll numbers that put them at 15% yet said they were above 25% and rising.  I’ve known business folks who sincerely believed they were going to land Client A and Client B, and prematurely told A and B that the other is “on board.”  In cases like this they minimize the untruth (if confronted they’d say “okay, technically we’re at $5 million, but we’ve had great vibes from donors that I’m sure will put us above $10 million”). They also really believe that the little spin will help build momentum which will soon blot out the fudge marks.

We’re all human — all prone to spin that grays over into half-truths or white lies. I’m no different. (See * for example below.)  My desire here is not to sound holier-than-thou (I’m decided not) or to moralize.

It’s just that the havoc that grows out of allowing (and perhaps growing) “small” concealments can become devastating.  Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick last week was sentenced to 28 years in prison; his choices helped impoverish a city and made a sad mess of his family. Could he perhaps have allowed someone to help him?

I suggest, in a way that perhaps applies to you, two things. First, find and listen to your “people of conscience.” Some folks are just strung that way, highly attuned to doing the right thing. Sometimes they’re moralistic, but actually the moralists can also be blind to their own immorality; they can be big loyalists, they trust their authority, including yours; and they worry about winning campaigns and beating the enemy.  I suggest your best bets are the ones who see the gray, who hold themselves to high standards. They’re the ones who are prone not to say, “That guys a liar,” but instead say “I might be wrong.”

My second suggestion is less idealistic than practical.  Develop a courageous narrative and exploit truth-tellingSo, that guy could have said, “We’re already at $5 million on the campaign. We think we have a great shot to be at $10 million by year-end, and you can really help us build momentum to get there.”  Now, the reality on campaigns — sales, development or political — is that success breeds success — hence the desire to spin and stretch — so this narrative may not embolden the wait-and-see folks to jump on board and write a check.  But it has two other advantages: First, with a truth-based narrative, you never have to hide, fix, or explain that narrative. Truth abides. Second truth-telling attracts and inspires others who are like-minded and trustworthy; you won’t have to worry about their bad ethical judgment undermining you.

Maybe take a minute to think about who your truth-tellers are — your gray-seers and your question-askers — who can protect your most enduring asset — your own character, as you

Lead with your best self,

Dan

*  I’ve let small overstatements of my accomplishments remain uncorrected sometimes, when I “rationalized” that it was a waste of time to correct, or a trivial mistake no one but me cared about. I was so impressed with Laura Scher, co-founder and chair of Credo Mobile who, when I inadvertently exaggerated her company’s success as I introduced her to my class, began her talk by correcting my mis-statements. She could easily have let them ride.