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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Truth, Transparency & Trust: The 3 T’s of True North Leaders

In working with many authentic leaders, I have learned that the three keys to becoming a True North Leader are Truth, Transparency and Trust. All three are essential qualities for building authentic relationships with your colleagues and teammates.

Do you want to become a True North Leader? First, you must discover your True North. When you do, you can practice the 3 T’s of True North Leaders: Truth, Transparency and Trust. These three practices of leaders enable you to build authentic relationships with people you lead and work with to enable your team to discover its True North and make it a reality.

Truth

Of all the qualities needed to be a True North Leader, the one indispensable value is integrity – or telling the truth. Unless you tell the whole truth to people, you will be unable to establish authentic relationships with your teammates. Organizations simply cannot function without integrity and a common knowledge of the truth; lacking it, they will devolve into political jungles where charisma takes precedence over character – a guaranteed route to failure.

Whereas politicians may get away with shading the truth and even outright lies, business leaders cannot. In the end their words will catch up with them, and they will lose legitimacy in the eyes of the people they work with. Contrary to the current political rhetoric, there is no such thing as “alternative facts.” There is only one set of facts that will lead us to the truth.

I once said to a close Medtronic colleague that “integrity is not the absence of lying.” I knew he would never lie to me, but I also observed that he tended to tell me only the good parts of a story, especially when it involved bad news. I urged him to tell me the whole story – the good, the bad and the ugly – and promised him he would never be punished for being a messenger of bad news.

Authentic leaders need to surround themselves with “truth tellers” – subordinates who have the courage to tell them the truth, especially when it hurts. Jamie Dimon, CEO of J.P. Morgan, tells the story of a subordinate who asked him, “Shouldn’t you have at least one truth teller on your team?” To which he replied, “If only one person on the team will tell me the truth, then I should fire the other nine. Everyone must be a truth teller.”

Ask yourself, would you follow someone who doesn’t tell the truth? Would you be willing to bet your career on them? I certainly wouldn’t. Nor should you.

Transparency

How transparent are you with your colleagues? How much do you share with them?

In the days of 20th century hierarchical leaders, it was common for leaders to hoard information at the top of organizations. These leaders shared with their subordinates only what they had “a need to know.” Thus, many people had no idea what was going on at the higher levels of the company.

Anne Mulcahy became chief operating officer of Xerox in 2000, as the company was struggling to avoid bankruptcy. She commented: “When I took over as COO, I was amazed at just how unaware everyone was of the seriousness of the issues. No one understood, and I mean no one.  It was shocking for the Xerox executive team to find out how dismal the outlook was.”

All this has changed for today’s leaders. They operate in a collaborative mode wherein horizontal relationships are more important than vertical ones to get things done. In order for everyone to do their jobs most effectively, authentic leaders share the complete picture with their colleagues.

Many leaders fear sharing bad news with their bosses and their peers, and even their subordinates. If they do not, how can they expect people to address problems unless they understand the full picture? At Medtronic, I told our team, “You need to surface bad news immediately, rather than waiting until we have the whole picture or solutions to rectify it. Then we can assign the best people in the company to understand its root cause and devise corrective actions.” This led to some uneasy phone calls late in the evening and on weekends, but it was far better to know the challenges so we could assign the proper resources to work on them.

The most successful organizations I have seen specialize in transparency because with it, everyone is able to operate more effectively.

Trust

For business leaders, trust is the coin of the realm. An essential part of any leaders’ job is to build the trust of their customers in the quality of their products, their services, their truthfulness as they build trusted brands. Due to the failure of their leaders to establish trust, three famous brands – Facebook, GE, and Wells Fargo – were badly tarnished and will take at least a decade to recover.

It is equally important for leaders to build the trust of their employees. To do so, they must always tell them the truth, be transparent in sharing information with them, both good and bad, and be available in person to share with them. When faced with Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook’s Zuckerberg went into hiding for five days, a sharp contrast to his frequent public appearances. On the fourth day he had a regular town hall forum scheduled with all employees, an event that he had attended regularly with chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg. But on this day, he skipped the meeting and instead sent Facebook’s deputy general counsel to answer employees’ questions. What was the message that sent? This was a purely legal matter. Zuckerberg was unwilling to face the real issue, which was whether Facebook’s two billion users could trust the company not to sell their personal information.

Contrast Zuckerberg’s withdrawal with Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly. When he became CEO in 2012, Joly faced a broken company whose 125,000 employees questioned whether the company could compete with on-line retailer Amazon. Joly immediately went into the stores, wearing Best Buy’s signature blue shirt, not just to visit, but to talk with customers and help sell its products. Then he made an extremely bold move: he committed to match any price a customer could find on-line with Best Buy’s in-store price. That cost the company some margin, but it led to a transformation in the trust of both Best Buy’s customers and employees.

As we can learn from these examples, trust is created not by words alone, but by the leaders’ actions. In crises like these, leaders must be fully present and willing to address the most difficult issues its customers and employees as well as its investors and the media may raise. As Woody Allen once said, “Eighty per cent of success is showing up.” As a leader if you don’t show up at crucial times, no one will trust you.

As you strive to improve as a True North Leader, work carefully on developing these three qualities: telling the whole truth, being fully transparent with your teammates, and building trust with all your constituencies.  As you do so, your reputation as a leader will grow stronger and you will gain credibility with your teammates.

To learn more about how to develop these qualities of True North Leaders, please read my book, Discover Your True North.