IS YOUR LEADER TELLING THE WHOLE TRUTH, AND NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH? TURNS OUT WE’RE ALL CRAVING HONESTY IN OUR BUSINESSES – AT EVERY LEVEL.
Hazard a guess at the most essential trait of a leader, as uncovered by a recent survey of employees: good in a crisis; charismatic; inspirational?
What we want, in fact, from our leaders is the good old-fashioned virtue of honesty: considered an ‘absolutely essential’ quality of a leader by 84% of respondents in a recent survey – putting it ahead of intelligence, decisiveness, organisational skills, compassion, innovation and ambition. And where honesty is concerned, women appear to have the advantage – while 67% of adults saw this characteristic as one displayed equally in men and women, 31% said female executives bring more ethics to their positions.
“It’s only natural that people would want to work under leaders who are open about what the company is doing [and] where it’s heading in the future,” writes Dan Schawbel in Forbes.
BUT FOR THIS ESSENTIALLY HUMAN TRAIT TO OUTSTRIP THESE OTHER IMPORTANT LEADERSHIP QUALITIES ON OUR WISH LISTS – IS THERE SOMETHING BIGGER GOING ON?
John Kotter, Professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School, believes so: “We want the truth from our leaders. But we have become cynics, accustomed to twisted messages from politicians and company marketing communications so wordsmithed that they lack meaning.”
The general public are more clued up than ever about the dirty dealings that can go on in the corporations we work with and buy from. “[We know that] corruption distorts markets, creates unfair competition and hurts wider society,” says Rachel Davies, Senior Advocacy Manager at Transparency International UK.
After all, we live in a world where nearly half of workers across Europe think bribery and corruption are acceptable ways to survive an economic downturn; where 40% of board members admit that numbers have been manipulated by their companies; and where each year an estimated £73 billion is lost to corruption and fraud in the UK alone. Almost one third of businesses have experienced at least one case of fraud – in the public sector, 67% of it being committed by employees.
The effects of corporate dishonesty impact lives in more personal ways still: 64 million people were pushed into poverty by the economic crisis, caused in part by lax regulation and lack of financial transparency.
BUT IT’S NOT ALL DOOM AND GLOOM: A MORE WIDESPREAD UNDERSTANDING OF THE EFFECTS OF DISHONESTY HAVE PROVOKED A BACKLASH INTO MORE TRANSPARENT LEADERSHIP.
There are leaders who foster cultures of honesty and transparency; deriding the ‘yes people’; rewarding those brave enough to speak out; encouraging sharing; warring against secrecy and groupthink; and willingly admitting their own failings.
Rand Fishkin of SEOmoz published his own performance review online; Tony Hsieh shared his emails to the facilities management team at Zappos on Twitter; Arianna Huffington is on record saying: “We need to accept that we won't always make the right decisions; that we'll screw up royally sometimes.”
“It is vital to set a strong tone from the top – leadership by example, and ensuring ethical values are well communicated throughout the organisation,” says Rachel Davies. “But promoting values alone is not enough – staff must also be provided with the tools to implement them. Training at all levels, including senior management, is important to ensure that honest values are taken on throughout the organisation.
This training should ensure it provides staff with the tools to understand what problems can arise and how to deal with them. Training that demonstrates how to navigate challenging scenarios is essential to equip staff to do business ethically and well.”
This article is adapted from everywoman's UPDATE, where we share the news and views of our corporate partners, as well as thought leadership and the most up-to-date thinking in the world of business. You can read the full version in the latest issue.
 The Leadership Challenge (John Wiley & Sons: 1987)