Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters." - Albert Einstein

Over the past few weeks and months, I’ve been reflecting on what it means to lead with integrity. These reflections, prompted by the various elections which have taken place over the past year or so, have inspired me to start work on a series of essays under the banner Lead With Integrity™. Once complete, these essays will form the body of a book. This is the first essay; on the subject of truthfulness.

Lead with integrity - Truthfulness

When I started thinking about what to ‘lead with integrity’ means, truthfulness was not on the list I made of key attributes. To be honest (no pun intended) it didn’t occur to me to include truthfulness on my list because it’s such an obvious and basic requirement. Isn’t it? How can you lead with integrity if you’re not truthful?

But in this ‘post truth,’ ‘alternative facts’ world, I believe truthfulness is the number one requirement when it comes to leadership. Truthfulness is the bedrock for trust. And right now trust is in very short supply – both in politics and business.

Alternative Facts In A Post Truth World

This week, we’ve had two further examples of blatant lying from the new president. One on the size of his inauguration crowd, and the other on claims of wide scale voter fraud. Ridiculous, pointless lies which are immediately disproved by the facts. We could get in to the whys and wherefores of these lies. Many people point to gaslighting, a tactic used to gain power, for an answer. But I think we’ve all had enough of this new President and his Alternative facts world. The bottom line is that for leaders to be trusted and inspire public confidence, they must be truthful.

In a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” - George Orwell, "1984"

The Trident Misfire

At the weekend, the British Prime Minister, Theresa May came within an inch of lying. Asked four times on The Andrew Marr Show to clarify whether she knew Trident had reportedly misfired just weeks before a Commons vote on the future of the nuclear deterrent, four times she refused to answer the question. This prompted a debate in the House of Commons, and the issue escalated when the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, refused to appear before the Defence select Committee.

It is almost always the cover-up rather than the event that causes trouble.” – Howard Baker 

Such evasion and secrecy, when the government of the day has previously reported on Trident missile tests was unnecessary. It gave the impression of a cover up, even if there wasn’t one. At a time when she is asking the British people to trust her to deliver the best possible outcome in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations, Theresa May would do well to consider whether or not her trademark approach of keeping her cards close to her chest will best serve her as a leader.


Likewise, the car manufacturer Volkswagen has been making the news for all the wrong reasons. Recently the company agreed to pay $4.3 billion in penalties, the largest fine ever levied by the U.S. government on an auto company. This new penalty was on top of the $14.7 billion settlement that Volkswagen signed, in July, to cover the costs of customers’ class-action suits. In addition, six Volkswagen executives have been charged with running a decade-long scheme to rig Volkswagen diesel engines with so-called defeat devices, which made engines appear to satisfy U.S. emission standards when they were in fact emitting far more pollutants than legally permitted.

This case stems from a strategic shift in 2007 when Martin Winterkorn, the then CEO, implemented an aggressive growth directive meant to push Volkswagen past General Motors and Toyota and make it the leader in global car sales by 2018. This aggressive growth was to be accomplished, in part, by selling more so-called clean-diesel vehicles. The company saw this clean-diesel opportunity as an opportunity to penetrate the vast US market, where at that time it had very little foothold.

So when Volkswagen executives and other employees realised their diesel engines would not meet U.S. air-quality standards and that the cars would probably be barred from the market, they found a way of working around this by developing software programmed to reduce emissions only when the vehicle was undergoing a standard U.S. emissions test. Out on the open road however, the car performed normally i.e. it could perform better in other regards whilst emitting more pollution.

This Volkswagen diesel emissions-cheating scandal is frustrating on so many levels. The company lied in a way that was easy to prove. The company betrayed the trust of its customers who were looking for green vehicles. Perfectly usable cars will be sent to the scrap heap unless Volkswagen can come up with a cost-effective emissions fix. And 30,000 people worldwide, 23,000 of whom are in Germany, will lose their jobs as Volkswagen seeks to renew its brand in the light of ‘Dieselgate.’

Truthfulness and Brand Promise

Unfortunately, this kind of dissembling and cover-up has become all too common in in businesses – whether they’re corporate or small. I know because I can think of 20 instances off the top of my head where small business owners have obfuscated, mislead and made promises they haven’t kept. Truthfulness goes to the heart of our brand promise. Which means, obvious as this might sound, truthfulness should be one of our core values. It’s our core values that form the ethical heart of our company, setting clear parameters around ‘the way we ‘do things.’

A successful business is founded on its relationship with its customers. If you don’t deliver on your brand promise, your customers will soon work this out. A brand promise says very simply “this is what I’ll deliver to you.” Simple words right? But not always so easy to deliver. Your brand promise is something your customers can absolutely rely on you to deliver time after time. It’s delivering on your brand promise that builds the trust between your small business and your customers. So there’s nothing simple about a brand promise at all.

If you’d like to delve deeper into what it means to Lead With Integrity™, I recommend you read Bill George’s excellent book, Discover Your True North. A former CEO of Medtronic, Bill George is a Harvard Business School Professor in leadership and a widely sought after commentator and speaker. He writes extensively on the subject of authentic leadership.

Join The Conversation

Question: What other attributes, besides truthfulness, do you think are fundamental when it comes to leading with integrity? I love reading your feedback so please do reply using the comments box below.

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