“Little White Lies”

Written by Larry Fehd, CEO & Founder / HPS

Wells Fargo’s CEO is the latest to be grilled by a Congressional Panel. Volkswagen and General Motors have been in the news for willful and deliberate violation of EPA emission control standards and placing consumer safety at risk. Bank of America had their turn on the Congressional BBQ and let’s not forget Enron. Virtually all of these incidents appear to quietly fade into the past without any measure of accountability for the perpetrators or restitution to those affected by these blatant disregards of employee and consumer trust.

It appears that ethics, integrity and truthfulness no longer apply or appear valued in some situations. The U.S. House of Representatives and Senate have lost credibility in the eyes of the people. When these incidents occur, on a much grander stage, how can the people be expected to trust or have confidence in their leaders? How can employees and consumers maintain trust and confidence? What message does it send to the people about ethics, integrity and truthfulness? Do they even matter anymore?

There is no unique origin or etymology of the term, “little white lie”. A Google search reveals that “white” has long been synonymous with “good”, “pure” or “intending no harm.” Regardless, we all know whether we are telling the truth (or some variation or partial truth) and others often get a sense of our truthfulness as well. My Dad used to tell me to always tell the truth. His advice was not necessarily based on ethics or integrity. His advice was practical, “Tell the truth, that way you’ll never have to remember the lie in case you’re forced to tell it again.”

Much has been written about leadership in the context of openness, truth, transparency, etc. Have I always been a perfect model of openness, truth and transparency? No. I would bet I’m not alone in that admission. However, in the context of leadership, I don’t think it’s prudent to exercise the option of a “little white lie.” We either tell the truth or we don’t. We either tell partial or complete truths. We either intend to do harm or we don’t. There is little if any space in between the white and black.

My former employer, Johnson & Johnson, had two very high profile experiences with the truth. I was an executive in the division which manufacturers Tylenol®. Although J & J was exonerated from any responsibility for the Tylenol® poisoning tragedies, the Chairman of the Board made a decision (and public announcement) to discontinue manufacturing the Tylenol® product line in its then (tamper-able) encapsulated form. The pundits predicted a collapse of the Tylenol® brand. Instead, the brand not only recovered, but regained consumer confidence, enjoyed increased market share and even sales increased as a result.

I can personally attest to the pride instilled in J & J employees by the Chairman’s decision to do the right thing. It was not only the right thing, but also aligned with the J & J culture and CREDO. I think the Wells Fargo incident, VW, GM, Bank of America and numerous other similar incidents take a toll in ways that may not be evident in the stock price. However, there is an impact on employees and consumers whom recognize the crack in leadership ethics. It sows seeds of doubt about whether employees or consumers may be compromised even more significantly in the future.

My point, as leaders, don’t we have a responsibility to be truthful? People prefer the truth as opposed to the pain and disappointment of misrepresentations, partial truths, distortion of facts and outright lies. It all starts with what we tell ourselves. We know the truth and whether we are accurately communicating the truth or not. We have to carry the knowledge that we have not been truthful and risk not only being found out, but the impact on those who were deceived. Is it really worth the burden we have to carry or the risk of compromising others?

“All human unhappiness comes from not facing reality exactly as it is.” – Buddha

Tips and Practical Applications:

  • Consider what you’re telling yourself. Is it the truth as you can best understand it? Have you sought others’ opinions about your understanding of the truth? There are three levels of knowing: 1) what we know 2) what we don’t know and 3) what we don’t know that we don’t know. According to the research, the later makes up about 80% of our knowing. That’s a lot of potential blindness and vulnerability.
  • As a leader, how confident are you that you are communicating the truth? It’s perfectly okay to say, “I don’t know yet”; “I don’t have enough information yet”; “I’ll tell you more when I’m confident that I’m telling you the whole truth”. It’s okay to say, that “It’s confidential for now and I’ll tell you more when I’m in a position to do so.”
  • As a leader, are you building and sustaining a culture of truth? Are you as comfortable communicating the whole truth and maintaining transparency as opposed to deferring to the temptation to communicate only partial or incomplete truths? How would misrepresenting the truth impact your credibility with your peers, team and organization?

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Larry Fehd


Larry Fehd is CEO and founded Human Performance Strategies (HPS) in 2000 following a successful career with Johnson & Johnson where he led executive leadership, team and organizational development. He is masterful at helping clients to break through inertia and the status quo.  He conceived the new and proprietary concept of Invitational Leadership™. He envisions the future of leadership as a passage beyond inertia and status quo and works with clients to develop invitational leaders at all levels of the organization.  He consults to a diverse group of U.S. and international clientele, and speaks and writes about, building high-performance leaders, cultures, teams and organizations.

(512) 415-0748

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