This May Be The Most Powerful Trait Of Great Leaders

Image courtesy of Mike Maguire

As a leader, your word is often the final word. And it’s usually the word that matters most. Whether you like it or not, what you say – and do – is important.

George Bradt, Forbes contributor and author of The New Leader’s 100 Day Action Plan, points out:

Nothing kills credibility faster than not practicing what is preached.

If Bradt is right, then he makes a pretty compelling argument for speaking (and acting in accordance with) the truth.


It sounds like a highfalutin moral concept for philosophers to debate. Not a business essential. But, we’re here to tell you that truth is perhaps the most powerful trait shared by great leaders.

As a leader, what you do with the power of your words – whether you choose to speak truth or deception – can determine whether your business thrives or fails. Truthful words, a close grasp on reality and the willingness to follow through with your actions are necessary tools for running and leading a business.

Here are 4 concrete reasons why it’s important for business leaders to embrace truth.

We All Live in a Shared Reality

People who are disconnected from reality are often said to live in “their own little world”. Leaders can’t afford that luxury.

Leaders must stay grounded in truth for the simple reason that their businesses exist in an objective reality. Joan Vaccaro, physicist, associate professor and chief investigator for the Center for Quantum Dynamics at Griffith University explains the concept of objective reality:

The objective reality is the collection of things that we are sure exist independently of us. Every person is able, in principle, to verify every aspect of the objective reality. Anything that cannot be verified in this way is not part of the objective reality.

I don’t want to get too heady here, but your business is a part of a shared objective reality. Consumers, business competitors, and money are all also part of the objective reality. And, everything within our objective reality can be considered to be verifiably true.

Whether you like it or not, you must make your decisions based on the reality – the truth – that they share. In fact, there’s even a name for this – the reality principle. Author of How to be Profitable and Moral, Jaana Woiceshyn discusses the reality principle in her article, “How to maximize long-term profits: The reality principle.”

The principle emphasizes staying focused on facts in one’s thinking and action, no matter how unpleasant, or how tempting it might be to evade them.

Faulty facts, incorrect assumptions or simple lack of information all open up the possibility that you will make choices that are counter to the objective reality and, as such, may harm your business.

For instance, imagine you own a dance studio. Let’s say you hear a rumor that your local competitor plans to open a studio in the neighboring town. In an effort to claim that territory, you hastily open your own studio there.

If your competitor was truly seeking that territory, opening your second studio (while a definite risk and financial burden now) may prove to have been a necessary and worthwhile financial risk in the long-run.

But, imagine that rumor was wrong and your competitor had no intention of opening a studio in that second town. Now you’re saddled with the very real expense and financial risk of a second studio that you never properly planned for… and there was no need.

Truth is important. Your business deserves a leader who makes decisions based on facts – facts that come from the same objective reality as your business.

Expert Tip: Keep your eyes open to objective reality. And, fact-check yourself often. Make sure your decisions are grounded in fact, not speculation.

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Great Leaders Are Adaptable

In an ever-changing world, effective leaders must be flexible and adaptive. The following quote (often attributed to Dr. W. Edwards Deming) says it all…

It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.

Change is constant, in life and in business. And, if we are to succeed, we must adapt to those changes.

The more adaptable you are in life, the more likely you are to thrive. Thanks to our understanding of the principle of evolution, we now know that the factor that determines which species will survive on our planet is the ability to evolve traits (adaptations) that allow them to competitively perform in their environment.

Our literal survival depends on our ability to react to change in an effective manner.

The importance of adaptability spans from science textbooks to the great wild outdoors and everywhere in between – including our businesses. The Center for Creative Leadership asserts,

Adapting to change is a life skill and a leadership imperative.

Adaptable leaders adjust their strategies and behaviors to accommodate new situations, allow adaptability to flourish among their subordinates and display cognitive and emotional flexibility. These are all valuable skills for navigating business challenges.

So how does all of this link back to truth?

It’s simple, really. To adapt in a meaningful way, you must first acknowledge the truth of what is not working. Only then can you make informed choices and move forward in a better direction. This is not easy – the truth hurts and is often uncomfortable.

Expert Tip: Be open to the truths that you may not want to see. Finding a mistake or an inefficient process is a gift – an opportunity to right a wrong and improve.

It’s All About Trust

In the world of ballroom dance, there are Leads and there are Follows.

In order for a couple to waltz, tango or cha cha successfully, it is essential that each partner fulfill their respective role. This means that the Lead must… well, lead. And the Follow must give up a large chunk of their autonomy in order to physically and mentally accept that leadership and seamlessly follow.

Giving up any degree of one’s autonomy is a scary proposition that requires trust. Employees, like dance Follows, are asked to give up a bit of their own autonomy every time they are given an order from a superior. To earn that trust, you must offer truth in return.

But, that trust is undermined every time a leader speaks words that clearly run contrary to reality. Outright lies, half-truths, and even a weak grasp on reality all weaken employees’ trust in their leader. And it causes them to question the faith that a leader deserves their loyalty in the first place.

Rose O. Sherman, RN, nursing professor, and Director of the Nursing Leadership Institute at Florida Atlantic University, agrees that truthfulness is a key leadership trait. In her article “Truth in Leadership” she shares,

Most leadership experts would agree that trust is the foundation of leadership. When followers feel that they have not been told the truth, there is a breech in trust with the leader. The ability to establish, grow, extend and restore trust is a key leadership competency. As a new leader, you build trust through your character and your competence in managing your responsibilities in an authentically truthful way.

This is just as applicable in the office as it is in a hospital ward. Entrepreneur, author, and speaker Glenn Llopis writes for Forbes:

…employees want to be a part of a workplace culture that puts a premium on delivering the truth. They desire their leaders to be proactive in sharing where the company is headed and forthright about its future. In other words, they just want transparency so they can plan and protect themselves.

You can’t effectively lead a team that doesn’t trust you. Lies of omission or outright deceit will undermine your credibility and pave the way for a toxic work culture to grow. You don’t have to look much further than the toxic cultures at companies like Uber.

Expert Tip: Be transparent and honest when communicating with your employees. It’s their future, too. They deserve to know the truth. 

Follow-through is Essential

“No Money Down!”

“100% Satisfaction Guarantee”

“Best Price in Town!”

Businesses love to make promises. And every single time a business makes a promise they open themselves up to criticism. Will they or won’t they follow through?

Your customers are eagerly awaiting to see which it will be. Making good on a promise is a great way to build brand loyalty and trust. Breaking your brand promises is a great way to make customers angry and lose their trust. And lost trust leads to lost customers.

But, you stand to lose more than customers if you don’t follow through on promises. Lewis Howes puts making empty promises at the top of his list of “Signs You Might Be a Terrible Leader,” saying:

Poor leaders motivate those following them with false promises of promotions, success and a great tomorrow, but rarely deliver on those promises… As a business owner you need to be aware of what effect this has on your staff.

Your employees are watching you. Right now. And every day. They’re waiting to see if you follow through on your promises and commitments. And what they see will impact their performance – and your bottom line.

Tony Simons of the Harvard Business Review and his colleague Judi McLean Parks conducted a study to measure the impact of managers’ “behavioral integrity.” They measured this by asking participants to evaluate statements like “My manager practices what he preaches” and “My manager delivers on promises.”

Simons reports:

The ripple effect we saw was stunning. Hotels where employees strongly believed their managers followed through on promises and demonstrated the values they preached were substantially more profitable than those whose managers scored average or lower.

In fact, no other single factor they studied had as significant an impact on profits.

What you say matters. Make sure that your actions are aligned with your words. Your relationships with both your customers and your employees are counting on it.

Expert Tip: Be truthful in word and action. Only make promises you know you can keep. And, follow-through on every promise that you make. 

The simple acts of getting intimately acquainted with reality and being truthful in your words and actions are prerequisites for business leadership. Truthfulness shouldn’t be an abstract concept. It should be the foundation of your leadership. Make truthfulness an everyday part of your leadership practice with these 4 tips:

1. Make decisions grounded in the shared objective reality.

2. Be ready to adapt when needed by keeping an eye out for the unpleasant truth that something isn’t working.

3. Be transparent and honest when communicating with employees.

4. Be truthful in word and action. Follow through on your promises and commitments.

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