For a leader, the most difficult problem to solve is the problem you don’t know about.
Well, the IED of bureaucracy has exploded. Eric Shinseki has been blown out as head of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Certainly, this was no surprise because in any bureaucratic organization, where true accountability is often impossible to identify, the only option when things go wrong is to remove the head of the organization. Firing Shinseki is the way things are done in a bureaucracy. Unfortunately, the “bureaucratic way” does nothing to cure the problems that triggered his departure.
In his farewell statement, Shinseki suggested that part of the problem was that he “was too trusting of those below him in the VA.” He intimated he felt deceived by subordinates who did not bring the truth of the problems to his attention. The trouble is, the issue of the truth goes much deeper.
President Obama best identified the real problem at the VA (and any bureaucratic organization) when, in his statement announcing the “resignation” of Shinseki, he said, “Part of that [finding solutions to the problems] is going to be technology. Part of that is management. But as Rick Shinseki himself indicated, there is a need for a change in culture within the VA as a whole . . . that makes sure that bad news gets surfaced quickly so that things can be fixed.” Therein rests the problem that can serve as a great lesson for any leader.
A key responsibility of any leader is to facilitate the solution to a problem that stands in the way of the organization achieving its objective. But in order to solve the problem, a leader must be aware of the problem. It was not Shinseki’s inability to solve problems, but his failure to identify problems that justified his termination. It was a cop-out as a leader for him to say, “I was not told of the problems.” The truth is that his failure to aggressively search out the truth made him as culpable for the department’s bureaucratic failings as he was a victim of them.
Shinsheki apparently believed that if he wasn’t told of a problem, then it didn’t exist. That’s naïve. The only time I was ever really uncomfortable leading a company was when there didn’t seem to be any problems. I had learned from experience that there were always problems and if I was not aware of them, then I was failing as a leader. It goes against the natural optimistic nature of leaders, but strong, successful leaders always look for – and have a system in place to identify – problems.
It is tough enough for a leader to make the right decisions, but it’s virtually impossible to do so when information regarding the options available is withheld or whitewashed with a veneer of half-truths. It’s logical to assume that because of this, leaders would not only encourage, but demand that truth be told. But you would be wrong.
The truth is that many business and government environments create an atmosphere that discourages subordinates from “telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth” to their bosses. This type of environment not only can stifle the telling of truth, but also punish those who come forward to offer it. As a result, many bad decisions are made, not because of the information provided to the leader, but because of information withheld, for fear of retribution.
Fear of the truth often manifests itself when the leader has an “arrogance of knowledge” or conversely, when an incompetent leader dreads exposure of this deficiency. Another fertile ground for suppression of truth is in the catacombs of any business or government bureaucracy. The natural structure of a bureaucracy often appears to be designed to entomb truth to prevent it from percolating to the top or to constrain a leader from drilling down to find it. Those below with knowledge of, or seeking to expose the truth, are faced with layer upon layer of resistance with no assurance the truth will go beyond even the lowliest of levels. For the leader at the top there is often no way to verify that what they are hearing is the truth or simply what others want to be heard.
The reality is that both business and government are less efficient and prone to poor decisions when truth is systematically kept from power. But, there is another side to the story, and that is when the truth is known by leaders who then seek to have it suppressed. In such cases, the avoidance of truth becomes a matter of ethics. Not surprisingly, the type of environment designed to hide the truth causes more damage than the failure to learn the truth.
Telling truth to power has two sides: the truth as to how the organization is functioning and exposing illegal or inappropriate activities of the organization, often referred to as “whistle blowing.” There is fertile ground for discussion of both sides of the issue of “telling truth to power,” but for here, the subject is limited to the responsibility to find or tell the truth as to how the organization is functioning.
Organizational Transparency is the Key
To be an effective leader, one must seek to create a totally transparent environment that allows the truth – no matter how discouraging or painful it may be – to easily flow up and down and organization. That is easier said than done.
For starters, leaders must have enough confidence in their own abilities and judgment to accept information from below – even though it may differ from their own conclusions – and not be intimidated or threatened by it. This requires a confidence of leadership that allows one to admit that, despite their experience and position, they do not have all the answers. There are far too many leaders who see and act as though this attitude is a sign of weakness. As a result, others learn that the way to be in the good graces of such leaders is to keep the truth from them. This leads to making decisions based on inadequate or colored information that lessens the chance of making the right decision.
Added to this problem is the natural propensity of organizations – especially larger ones – to systematize the command and control structure of activities and the flow of information. This is not necessarily bad, because activities and information that flow on a haphazard basis can be just as damaging as the lack of action and information. The key is to strike a balance between the “need to know the truth” and the “need for structure.” The leader must be sensitive not to intrude on the authority and responsibility of those below by circumventing the structure of the organization. Inefficiency and even chaos can emerge if those at lower levels of the organization are allowed to bypass the chain of command.
There is another side to this issue that is not often discussed. For truth to be told to power not only requires a leader who is willing to hear the truth, but equally as important is an employee who is confident enough to tell the truth to power.
Those in the trenches of an organization are most often the first to know what is working and what is not. After all, they are hired (or should be) because of their ability to implement the plans and actions of the organization. When an employee knows the truth is different from what the leader may perceive it to be, it is just as unethical for that employee to withhold the truth as is for the leader who chooses to ignore the truth.
In organizations that systematically recriminate against those who tell truth to power, it is understandable that employees will be reticent to sacrifice their job or future on the altar of truth, but it does not absolve them of the ethical requirement to do so. Those who withhold a known truth from power not only must accept that they have sold their soul for a paycheck, but that they, in all likelihood, are in an organization that they will help fail.
Building an Environment where Truth Prevails
The answer to these challenges – for both the leader and the follower – is simple. It is open, consistent and honest communication that will build a bond of trust. Like life-giving blood that must flow freely in our veins, so too must truth flow freely in an organization – and not be blocked – for a leader to be able to make sound decisions. This can be accomplished by the leader – without destroying the command and control structure of the organization – by being constantly visible, leading open meetings, encouraging the formation of work-groups that explore and examine the operations of the organization, consistently meeting with different groups of employees to outline plans and receive input and, most important of all, creating an environment that encourages members of the organization to ask questions and express their viewpoints, without fear of recrimination.
Only then can truth be told to power. And only then can problems be addressed with any hope of success. And had Shinseki adopted this kind of open leadership, he’d still be Secretary of Veterans Affairs.
And the Moral of the Story …
Knowing the truth of the problems provides the only opportunity to resolve them. Ignorance or fear of the truth does not change it, but they can condemn a leader to making bad decisions. Telling truth to power requires the cooperation of two parties: The leader who will seek truth at all costs and the employee who will offer truth at all costs. Only in such an environment can truth be told to power and in doing so it offers the organization – including the leader and the members – the best chance to solve problems as they emerge and achieve success. And, that’s the truth!