Honesty: The Most Powerful Weapon In Business

The secrets to success in business leadership aren't secrets at all. They're principals and lessons most of us already know, but ignore. Tell the truth. Simple is better than complicated. Work is a verb -- get to it. Share the credit. Listen more than you talk. Open your mind. They're in plain sight, staring us in the face, fundamental and familiar -- in a word, obvious. Maybe too obvious. They've been recited to us by our parents and grandparents. Words to live by. As likely to appear in a fortune cookie as an MBA textbook. In fact, they are so fundamental, they may have been taken for granted or ignored, and certainly not practiced to their highest effect. They are truisms. That is, lessons that ring true because they are true; they work.

One of the truest is honesty is not just the right thing to do, but the perhaps the most potent weapon in business. Honesty has become an endangered species. Yet it's incredibly potent, whether the news is good or bad. "We cannot meet the deadline." "That is my best offer." "You're hired." "You're fired." Honesty isn't just the right thing. It's effective. But rare.

Look at the way the big business of professional sports has responded to accusations of steroid use. Either head-in-the-sand by team owners and league officials, or denials, no comments, and hollow claims of ignorance by ballplayers. And look at the public opinion that has engendered. Distrust and cynicism. Wouldn't the truth have worked a lot better? "I did it, but I shouldn't have."

Ironically, the advertising business, known as purveyors of carefully worded hedges and verbal fudges -- "nothing is more effective," (translation: it works like everything else) or "now with reduced fat," (translation: less fat than our high fat version) - that same business on occasion has put the truth to work very effectively. One of the most famous ad campaigns of modern time was done for the Volkswagen Beetle after World War II, not the best time for an unattractive German import to compete with American-made cars. Ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach coined disarming headlines such as "It's ugly but it gets you there," "Think Small," and "Lemon," in a self-deprecating, candid appeal to people who had tired of over-promises from Detroit automakers. The same agency positioned also-ran rental car company Avis, as "only number two" so "we try harder." How honest to admit you're not the biggest and therefore have to work more to get and keep your customers. The truth can work even better than puffed up ad claims.

Conversely, witness the spate of tarred executives from once-respected companies, who massaged, inflated, and drastically altered financial statements to make things seem better than they were, or hide their own personal excesses. Enron, Tyco, Adelphia Cable, HealthSouth, WorldCom, and others still in court.

The fact is, there's no such thing as a good liar. Just think of how many lies have you been told today? "He's in a meeting." " That's our best price." "It's guaranteed for life." " You have my word on it." "That stock is sure-thing." "This won't hurt a bit." " Your call is very important to us."

How many have you told? "My plane was late." "My email crashed." "The boss won't approve this price." "I sent the check."

Despite all rationalization, there is almost never a circumstance in which it's better to lie. Take this test before you tell a lie:

1. Does the first lie, require a second lie?
2. If so, don't tell the first one.

Facts emerge. Reality becomes undeniable. Be honest now or be honest later. Now is better.

But what about the old saying that it's okay to lie if telling the truth would hurt someone's feelings? Am I losing my hair? Do I look fat in this dress? Do you think I'll get a raise? Okay, there are a few times when diplomacy is better than brutal honesty. But only a few. Most of the time, it's like pulling off a bandage. It hurts for a second but it's over. "No, you won't get a raise." Ouch! Done.

Here's a simple fact. Lies are only told by liars. Do you want to do business with one? Neither does anyone else.

Try the truth. The truth is used so infrequently, it's like a secret weapon. But here's the amazing thing. It's easy to use. We always know what the truth is. We almost never have to do any research to find out. It's just right there. The truth - the secret weapon that's not a secret.