This briefing is in honor of my late business partner, Judy Weinstein, who was the living example of the distinction “straight talk”. (I know – I worked with Judy for a long time.)
There is an observation I have made repeatedly in the course of my career that I find worthy of sharing with senior leadership. If you are willing to take it on, it could set you free – but most likely it will piss you off first!
In recent years, we have watched Corporate America go mad. However, from the days of the great emperors to our own time, from the dot.com era to Enron, there have been people who embody the very essence of effective leadership. World figures like Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill, Jack Welsh and many others whom we have grown to admire had something distinctive in common that made them the leaders that they were. What was it?
Is straight talk just a noble concept? NO! To give you an example, as a wise man said many years ago, democracy is not a spectator sport. George Washington stated that the only thing that holds democracy together is integrity. Integrity in our commitment, integrity in our principles, integrity in our actions – and, critically, integrity in our communications – i.e., talking straight.
Leadership is what leadership does. The absence of straight talk most often leads to greed, emptiness and corruption. When that happens, I have observed that, while the economic impact on the shareholders or the employees is often horrific, it’s not actually what matters the most. Rather, the biggest cost of a lack of straight talk is the assault on our human dignity. It is an attack on the very essence of what knits our society, our country and our corporations together, and makes any of them a cause big enough to be worth giving our lives for.
What’s all of this got to do with corporate leadership?
It has everything to do with business. The days of just throwing around words like integrity, accountability and responsibility as though they are cheap change, are over. As a leader, you either talk straight or you are going nowhere fast. It is as simple as that. I am of the opinion that what our great leaders had in common was the ability to say what needed to be said, exactly the way things were, and exactly at the time it was needed the most. They had ability to put the integrity of what we call humanness above all, and to call each of us to the best in ourselves. To honor ourselves by honoring the rest of humankind, to be a voice bigger than our own personal concerns, to look for the well-being of the whole – to tell it as it is, without adding anything or taking anything away, exactly the way that things are and the way that they are not, with no loss in dignity, power or the fundamental belief in human nature. Rather, these great leaders’ straight talk left us fully present to our dignity, our power and the magnificence of being human. And that moves mountains.
Great leaders live their lives as if they belong to the whole. So can you: the business owner, the investor, the shareholder and, mostly, the CEO. You are the one who sits in the leader’s chair and holds the responsibility for hundreds or thousands of lives in your hands. Who is responsible (or at least claims to be) for the global economy. We are all born with this ability. Are you willing to live up to it?
If your answer is yes, listen to these words with the highest degree of care – as if your life is depending on it (as well as so many others’). The paradox of straight talk is that many leaders claim that people can’t handle the truth. That they will panic, they will fall apart, they will not understand. I strongly disagree. Human beings are much stronger and more resolved than we are willing to take into account. Look at what has been accomplished in the last 1,000 years despite what humanity has been through. It is not the truth that scares people; it is the “not knowing”.
It is easy to forgive those who have made mistakes.
It is the NOT talking straight that is difficult to forget.