The Power of Honesty: Why Being Straightforward Matters

It’s interesting, the secrets you decide to reveal at the end of your life. — Randy Pausch, Author of “The Last Lecture”

I received a call from Nick, a senior executive in a Fortune 500 company, who had been a client of mine for nearly ten years.

“I need to see you right away,” he told me.

“Right now?” I asked.

“Yes. Right now.”

Nick was hard-driving, no-nonsense, and ambitious. He was known for being cutthroat in his dealings with others, and not afraid of using other people’s talents and skills to get what he wanted. But he rarely, if ever, acknowledged their efforts and contributions. Instead, he would often take the credit for their work. When he felt threatened by someone, or whenever subordinates objected to his actions or managerial style, he demoted or fired them. Some very talented people left the company or were given the boot because of his actions. Politically savvy, he made sure that he kept his boss happy—he managed up—while ensuring that other talented people in his organization had little to no access to his boss.

Not surprisingly, Nick was disliked.

I tried to coach him, pointing out his weaknesses many times. He respected me and my suggestions, because I had been instrumental in several of his promotions.

When I arrived at Nick’s office, Nick looked grimly serious. I couldn’t imagine what was wrong.

“Subir,” he said softly, “I have been diagnosed with liver cancer. It is inoperable. The doctors are doing what they can for me, but I don’t have long to live. Maybe a month or two.”

The news hit me like a ton of bricks. Nick might have been a difficult boss to those under him, but he was also a brilliant visionary who had had a major impact on his industry. My voice was barely audible when I replied, “I am so very sorry, Nick.”

“I’ve told my wife and my children. I haven’t told anyone at the company yet. But now you know,” he said. “And I need your help.”

I was surprised that Nick would confide in me with such a personal and painful revelation. I wondered what I could possibly do to help.

“Help with what?” I asked.

“I have been thinking about how I treated Audrey,” he said.

When Nick had taken his current position, he had a woman reporting to him whom he did not like—Audrey. She knew his piece of the business better than he did when he arrived, was very outspoken and straightforward, and never hesitated to challenge Nick and his ideas when she thought it necessary to do so. 

Nick removed Audrey from his management team. It was a very public and humiliating demotion–her career at that company was effectively over. Soon after, she resigned and went to work for a competitor. After she left, the product for which she had held primary responsibility won national awards. Nick took credit for her work. He did not acknowledge her contribution at all.

 “What about Audrey?” I asked, unsure what he was getting at.

“The way I treated Audrey is one of the great regrets I have about my time here. I’m wondering what I can do about it. Should I offer an apology? Will you help me think through what, if anything, I should do? Should I reach out to her and ask for forgiveness?”

I told him that I wasn’t even sure what would do, given that I had never been in that situation. But I did tell him what I hoped I would do: call Audrey and thank her for her work. I believed a straightforward “Thanks” that came from the heart would mean a great deal.

He asked, rather meekly, “Do you think she will take my call? She was very angry when she left the company. I did not handle it well.”

I was surprised that Nick was aware of how Audrey felt. My impression of him was that too often he was oblivious to the effects of his behavior.

I said, “I am sure she will take your call.”

Nick followed my suggestion and did call Audrey. Later, Audrey called me. We had worked closely together before she left the company. She asked if I had put him up to calling her. I assured her that I had not—I had merely made a suggestion in response to Nick’s concerns about his behavior toward her. The decision to call was his. She did not relay the details of their conversation, but she did tell me that it lasted about a half hour and that they were both in tears by the end of it.

Audrey was the essence of what it means to be straightforward: honest, direct, open, candid, transparent, and fair. She had a caring mindset. Nick was the opposite.

Nick’s belated realization and regret that he often did not act out of a caring mindset only came to him in his final days, and that is unfortunate. I can only imagine how much richer Nick’s life would have been— as well as the lives of everyone around him—had he worked to be more straightforward during his lifetime. I sometimes wonder if I should have been even more straightforward with Nick than I was. If I pushed him further, who knows how much more he and his team would have accomplished.

We are responsible for the decisions we make, including the choice to embrace a caring mindset. In addition to being straightforward, a caring mindset requires us to be thoughtful, accountable, and to have resolve. Being straightforward needs to happen with every conversation and interaction that we have—with colleagues, bosses, and customers, friends and family. Without the ability and intent to be straightforward and honest, we cannot create and sustain a caring mindset, or achieve a healthy organization, family, or community.

If Nick had been honest and fair in his dealings with those under him, he would have given his subordinates the credit they deserved rather than taking it for himself. It is impossible to pin down the entire economic cost that results from employees who hide the truth or, worse, purposefully lie about the facts. But apart from the dollar cost, the human cost is considerable. For example, what is the price of Nick’s refusal to acknowledge his subordinates’ efforts and achievements? I suspect that cost is significant. Did his people give their all to their work? At the very least, this type of behavior costs the company the loss of valuable employees such as Audrey, in whom it had invested time and training. 

Our ability to be straightforward suffers when we are afraid. This is true not only in business but in our schools and within our families. When we are afraid, openness and transparency decrease exponentially. We hide the truth, or fake our emotions. We strive to give a false impression to cover up the truth—about how good-looking we are, about how clever or competent we believe ourselves to be, about how much money we make. The result is that we live in a world of deceit and lose sight of the importance of being straightforward and honest.

I am an efficiency advocate; it’s what I do for a living. As a result, I have a tendency to think my daughter should be perfect. I forget she is a teenager. I forget that she is a far better person than I was at her age. I expect her to do certain things my way. When I decided that she was not working as hard as I thought she could, or should, I expressed annoyance with her. And as a result, she withdrew from me.

When I realized how negative I was being, I had to remind myself to come back to a caring mindset. I invited my daughter out for a walk; we had fun together and talked for hours. And I realized what a fantastic young lady she is and how much there is for me to learn from her. When she understood that my shortness with her was due to the fact that I wanted so much for her to succeed in life, she opened up. This was a huge learning experience for me. Creating fear and apprehension drives people away: they become less straightforward as a result. It’s a downward spiral.

I see this same dynamic of fear and withdrawal in many of the companies I work with—but too often without the happy ending that I experienced with my daughter.

Pride can cause people to be less straightforward. Ego is a serious problem in a lot of organizations. Too often, senior leaders don’t acknowledge their problems. And when they do, they hide them. “How can I tell others that I have a problem with that? They won’t respect me. They will think I’m weak.” Nick’s pride drove Audrey from the organization, and made a lot of other people around him miserable.

So often it is pride that discourages us from saying, “I don’t know.” When I am asked a difficult question about quality, and I don’t have an answer, it is incumbent on me to admit, “I don’t know.” I can imagine people thinking, “What the heck? You are supposed to be the quality expert.” And I am. But I am not omniscient. I am not a genius with all the answers. I’m confident enough to admit when I don’t know something. When I do, I work three times as hard to get the answer.

In my experience the most successful people are not afraid to say, “I don’t know.” They are not trapped by their pride.

When you are authentic, candid, and straightforward, not only will you be more successful, but you will be more fulfilled—and so will everyone around you. When you are afraid to admit to your failings, you live in fear. The counter to living in fear is to boldly and honestly say what you think—in other words, be straightforward. And the feeling of freedom that comes with that is exhilarating and liberating.

Back to Nick. After Nick was diagnosed with cancer, his mindset and behavior changed dramatically. When he knew that death was imminent, many of the things we had talked about over the years finally started to sink in. We met each week, and he often asked me if I believed that people he had wronged would forgive him. I asked him why he wanted forgiveness and gave him the space to talk about what he had done. I believe it was a form of catharsis for him, and in a way, for me. He did not tell me if he had reached out to anyone beyond Audrey. Perhaps that was enough for him. I do know that he went out of his way to repair relationships with colleagues, subordinates, and others with whom he had been very tough.

At Nick’s funeral, Audrey cried. People from organizations that worked with Nick’s company attended the service; some stated that he was one of the best executives they had ever dealt with. 

I couldn’t help but wonder, however, if Nick had led a straightforward life before his diagnosis, would he have lived a much happier life? Would he have been even more successful? Would he have experienced more joy?

Nick’s story is a tale of transformation. In the end, he was able to continue working for another six months, far longer than his original prognosis. And according to many, he did the best work of his career during this time. He had a positive impact on countless people in his organization, as well as on the company’s suppliers. And I know that he was far prouder of his actions and behavior during the last months of his life than he was in the previous decades of his career. I only wish he had not waited so long.  


Originally published on LinkedIn