Lying, by Sam Harris, is a good starting point to gain a better understanding of the role of honesty and integrity.4 It raises the question, Is an authentic leader honest 100 percent of the time? Probably not, so should a leader even be held to such a standard? According to Sam Harris, integrity is demonstrated when an individual’s actions do not lead to or result in moments of shame and remorse, and they have no need to lie about their personal life. Sam dives in particular into the idea of white lies. You know — those lies you tell because you are embellishing a story or trying to be kind and not hurt someone’s feelings. For example, “The fish I caught was this big” (please put your hands up and pretend you caught a fish; now move them farther apart). Or, the worst, many possible answers to “How does this dress make me look?” As a male, I’d rather have my teeth pulled out with no Novocain than answer that question.

As an authentic leader, you’re faced with white lie moments all the time. What I love about the book Lying, and what it has to say about white lies in particular, is that Sam’s philosophy is that he can’t read minds (and therefore must avoid making assumptions): when asked a question, he will base his answer solely on the words that come out of the other person’s mouth. Taking that premise, how can an authentic leader be 100 percent honest? It is never an easy task, and the right framing of the answer is a unique skill, but if your colleague or subordinate asks you a direct question about their performance, the best course of action is to give them honest feedback.

Ask yourself what response you would want if you asked someone the same question. You don’t expect people to be brutal with their feedback but to be tactfully honest. Honest feedback can be the single most important bit of feedback a person gets. When I didn’t receive tenure at my last job, a colleague told me that sometimes not getting the thing you want most works out best in the long run. There’s a lot of truth in that bit of advice. It was one of my nudges.

In 1998, I worked for the Nationwide Advertising Services (NAS). My boss was the regional VP and gave me some advice that I hold true to this day. I am paraphrasing, but he said, “If you hear a bit of feedback once, put a stake in the ground about the information. If you hear the same feedback a second time, reflect on it and consider if there is any truth to the information. But if you get the same feedback from a third person, it’s true, so make a change.” Since that nugget was delivered, I have always had my antennae up when it comes to receiving feedback.

Dr. James Kelley

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