Dr. Tim Irwin



Truth Starvation: How Leaders Can Avoid It


A few weeks ago, I read Game Change, a book about the 2008 presidential election. Most of the major candidates were described in detail, but I found the most interesting to be John Edwards, the Democrat presidential candidate from North Carolina. His now well-publicized affair and love child with Rielle Hunter is old news, but what struck me as profound was that his campaign seemed like a train wreck in slow motion. Many knowledgeable campaign insiders suspected something was going on between Edwards and Hunter, as is well-documented in the book.

John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, the authors of Game Change, write convincingly that former Senator Edwards ignored a number of warning signals. These came particularly in the form of several very senior advisors in his party telling him to stop the affair. Edwards maintained his innocence until the facts were undeniable.

How do leaders get into this state? In Derailed, Five Lessons Learned from Catastrophic Failures of Leadership, I point out that a leader’s derailment usually occurs in five stages:

  1. Lack of self/other-awareness—often expressed in narcissism, for example, BP CEO Tony Heyward’s now infamous line, “I want my life back.”

  2. Arrogance—“I’m special and don’t have to follow the normal rules.”

  3. Ignoring the warning signals—Edwards dismissing the wisdom and advice of party officials.

  4. Rationalization—essentially, when we deflect the feedback of others and we lie to ourselves—Tiger Wood saying, in effect, I’ve worked hard and deserve to have these dalliances.

  5. Derailment—the train goes off the tracks.

Edwards followed the derailment script to perfection. While the first three stages of derailment set the tragedy in motion, the fourth stage pushed the wheels off the track.

Leaders can easily become “truth starved.” They first lie to themselves…“I deserve this special perk…I made this place what it is.” We would likely agree that lying to others is bad, but I would argue that lying to ourselves is even worse. What kind of lies were rattling around in John Edward’s head? We can only speculate, but might it have been, "I’m too important to fail" or “someone as powerful as I am needs an affirming relationship to keep going.”

As damaging, a derailing leader may cut himself off from truth delivered by others. A proverb says, “Wounds from a friend are better than the kisses of an enemy.” If a leader is willing to listen to the counsel of others, even when the truth of their feedback hurts, a tragedy of epic proportions may be circumvented. It always struck me as incredibly foolish that Bob Nardelli, not one time during his five years as CEO of Home Depot, sought the counsel of the retail giant’s founders, Arthur Blank and Bernie Marcus. Nardelli should have had them on speed dial.

As leaders, how do we avoid this trap of becoming truth starved? Here are seven recommendations:

  1. Tell yourself the truth. Ask yourself, does this pass the “smell test” of a normal person?

  2. Test your motives…“Why am I doing this?” Are my reasons sound and honorable? Remind yourself that we can almost always find logical reasons for something we want. Why do we reallywant to do this?

  3. Prior to acting, apply the “Sixty Minutes Test.” If a reporter from “Sixty Minutes” met you at the door of your home wanting to know about a past activity, how would you explain it?

  4. Be accountable to others. Even if you own your business or work independently, create a “board of advisors.” Get not only business advice, but avail yourself to their feedback about your character. One very smart CEO I know gave his General Counsel veto power over any initiatives he thought ill-conceived. Even though the CEO had the authority to run the whole company, he wanted to make actions accountable to someone else.

  5. Have a “gray zone mentor.” Whenever you have an issue that’s not black and white, have a trusted advisor who is able to cut through the haze and tell you the truth.

  6. Examine who it's for. Our psychobabble culture fosters a “please ourselves” mentality. When an action does not serve others, it should always be carefully examined.

  7. Check alignment. Ask yourself, “How does this action support or contradict the personal brand that I want to create?”

We’ve seen a spate of derailments in the last few months…who will be next? I don’t know, but it is likely that we will be able to see a very lean truth diet in his or her life somewhere. How profound it would be if leaders on a large scale began to tell themselves the truth!