In Defense of Honesty

Drama is worthless except for those who profit from it.  Find your best, graceful, honest self…and bring it.

I’ll just start with this:  I tend toward an idealistic world view.  I believe in establishing and testing core principles and doing my best to live by them. I launched a firm based on that.  I’m not perfect, and I’ve been around the block enough to know that a principled world view is one that can be dangerous to one’s career and to one’s reputation–even when principles are otherwise “right.”

It’s a little acknowledged fact that, as a western culture, we applaud and crowd around feats of physical courage.  We love people who “put their life on the line” and laud them accordingly.   People who are physically courageous might face questions of why they take such risks, but such risks are appreciated.  We saw this recently with a few U.S. citizens who stopped what might have been a much worse shooting incident on a train in France.  We laud them, rightfully so.

On the other hand… Moral courage is actually a very lonely thing.  The courage to stand on principle in the face of really rotten circumstances, to give up power, prestige, or even (gag!) money to have the ability to sleep well at night is…to put it bluntly…tough.  Why?  Well, it usually has to do with a matter of reflection.  When we are morally courageous, we cause other people to reflect on their relative lack of courage.  It’s easy for an individual to look at a selfless feat of physical courage and say “oh, my, I don’t think I could ever do that” and still maintain a solid self image. Change the circumstances to one of moral courage, and people are suddenly confronted with their own foibles more directly.

For the average person, It might be hard to put one’s self in harm’s way to save someone from being shot or run over by a car, but it’s (conceptually) actually pretty easy to walk away from an unethical leader.  However, throw in a bunch of other people following the same unethical leader, good money, and good old inertia, and the person who opts out of such a circumstance has to foster a lot more courage (again, conceptually) than a person who saves the damsel in distress.

Wait, do you mean that it’s harder to be morally courageous than to be physically courageous?

Yes, of course.  If such weren’t the case, we would see a lot more instances of whistle blowers and conscientious objectors vs. physical heroes.  We would see fewer instances of closed ranks, cloistered leaders, and silent exits of key executives. Instead, whistle blowers and conscientious objectors know that they can be vilified, ostracized, and ultimately damaged by the very act of calling out issues.

On a more micro level–one that I hope affects us all vs. the more macro issues faced by whistle blowers–if we saw more flexing of moral courage, we would see a lot less drama in the average group endeavor.


Because the core of moral courage is honesty.  It’s bringing your best, honest self to bear on any situation.

Drama typically ensues in organizations when there is ambiguity, passivity, apathy, and manipulation.  Drama, true to the metaphor, comes as much from what is happening behind the scenes as on stage.  And, believe you me, there are predatory minds that relish the ability to foster drama and discord.  They thrive on it.

So, my point:  If we are to flex our moral courage, we have to start practicing some level of honesty.  Honesty with ourselves is where it has to start.  Have we examined ourselves, our lives, our professional approaches?  The average human mind (and ego) really doesn’t do that well.  And, make no mistake, we are, on average…average.

Honesty with others is the next step.  Have we offered up, in careful but clear terms, an honest appraisal of situations and the mindsets around us, or do we let drama stir?  Have we examined our relationships in this manner?  Have we been willing to say “no” to those who foster discord? Keep in mind that it is possible to be honest without being brutal.  Most corporate jerks I know are “honest” on some superficial level, but they are also absolutely brutal at it.

Honesty requires grace, and honesty without grace is brutality.

Some might wonder why “honesty” rises to the top of a blog that is ostensibly about leadership and strategy and organizations and transformation.  I’ll just put it this way:

If you can’t be honest with yourself and those around you, you can’t be an effective strategist.  Drama–and the dishonesty underpinning it–obfuscates.  It creates ambiguity.  It creates friction.  It creates frustration.

I’ll say it again:  I’m an idealist. That means, for instance, that I don’t mind being called naive while acting in defense of honesty.  I have found that defending an honest point of view helps the predators and pretenders to reveal themselves for who they are much faster than if I play along.  I sleep well at night.

Bring your best honest self to the situation, and see what happens.  You might not like the reaction, but I guarantee you will like the outcome.


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