Leaders Need to Know the Truth

Holding to consistent ethics and morals is vital for leaders

Truth? What is Truth?

Senior leaders have great responsibility for being able to sort out fact from fiction, and apply those ethics in their decisions. There’s a scene in the the film The Passion of the Christ where Jesus is speaking with Pilate about “truth” that illustrates the point.

When Jesus tells Pilate that He is a “witness to the truth” and Pilate retorts “what is truth?”, we see a leader who us un-moored to objective right and wrong. In the following scene, Pilate debates the subject again with his wife Claudia. When Claudia implores him not to find Jesus guilty just to satisfy the crowd, Pilate asks her whether she can explain to him what “truth” means. She takes his face in his hands and tells him that if can’t see it, no one can explain it to him. Pilate then goes on to explain “his” truth, but what he fails at is having a starting place beyond the consequences of a given decision.

Pilate is unable to see that in condemning an innocent man to death, he is breaching the Truth of right and wrong. Of course the decision is difficult – he was facing another rebellion in a crowded city and Caesar had warned him more than once about controlling the province. But in giving in and “washing his hands” of the death of Jesus, he neither prevented unrest nor showed strength to the citizens of Jerusalem. Instead, he’s remembered as the villain who failed to do what’s right, and lost his own wife in the process.

The central lesson here is that there is such a thing as objective truth, and there is the lived experience of leaders trying to navigate ambiguous situations. Having a good foundation in ethics, morals, and objective truth is very important. Holding to those is even more important

Fact, Opinion, Perspective, Truth

The more senior I went in the Air Force, the more times I was presented with decisions that required separating fact from fiction, opinion from truth, and finding the correct perspective from which to view the decision. Starting from a consistent ethic and moral foundation is the only way to make tough decisions rationally and correctly.

Another film reference to illustrate the point: In the musical Fiddler on the Roof, we see Tevye struggle to apply what he knows is true with the messiness of human existence. He has many conversations with himself weighing the values he holds dear with the needs and wants of his daughters. In the end, he makes the best decisions he can in an imperfect world, while holding true to his faith and his duty as a husband and father. His decisions aren’t perfect, but by starting from a place of certainty -what’s right and what’s wrong – then applying those principles in love and mercy, he does what’s right in the end.

It’s the same with leaders, especially senior ones. We must hold fast to our ethics, and our morals, but we need to remember that real humans are involved. Some of the most difficult decisions I ever made as a leader were between two decisions that were best described as “bad” and “worse.” Making those decisions is crucial for leaders, and ensuring that even when a situation has negative consequences the decision is based on consistent ethics.

There is Such a Thing as Right and Wrong

Objective truth – things that are true no matter the situation – has had a rough run of late. The popular meme of “speaking my truth” rather than “speaking the truth” illustrates an approach where we avoid drawing conclusions about decisions and behavior. In the military, we learned to separate the person from the action, and to base our decisions on a consistent ethic. I sometimes had to visit negative consequences on people who I liked, or who were generally good people. Sometimes good people make horrible and even criminal decisions, and while every offense isn’t a mortal sin, people notice when leaders don’t hold others accountable for their actions. The key is to remember the people you’re dealing with are humans, and to address the behavior rather than engaging in character assassination.

There are things we know in our hearts are always wrong. Intentionally killing an innocent, stealing, cheating, lying, etc. are all objectively wrong. The situation may mitigate the consequences, but there must almost always be consequences for our actions. The classic example is the man who breaks into a pharmacy to get medicine for a dying person in an emergency. A window is broken, but a life is saved. Theft and destruction of others’ property is always wrong, but the consequences for this would be different than the dealer who breaks in to steal drugs he plans to sell illegally.

We Know, We Act

We usually know what’s right and wrong instinctively, and we need hold to that moral core as leaders if we ever intend to inspire others to act morally. As I’ve written in Leading Leaders, a breach of integrity is like mildew, the place gets stinky if you don’t clean it up quickly. When we get that little “twinge” of conscience that something is wrong, we should listen carefully. It’s not wrong to be tempted; it’s only wrong to act on that temptation to violate our integrity.

Mickey is an expert in leadership and organizational change. During his 30 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world. Mickey now works with clients around the country to improve performance and help organizational transformation. He is a Distinguished Graduate of the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC. Mickey is the author of eight books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating TeamsMickey’s Rules for Leaders, and The Five Be’s: A Straightforward Guide to Life.

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