*When it comes to bugs.
Let me explain…
Early last Saturday morning I was awoken by the blood-curdling sound of my wife screaming from the other room. Still half-asleep and half-dressed I bolted out of bed in a panic yelling, “What happened!? What happened!?”
“There’s a giant roach in the bathroom!!! It’s so disgusting! It’s like six inches long – and it just ran behind the sink! You have to kill it!”
So I raced back into the bedroom to get my glasses, grabbed a rolled up New Yorker magazine (after quickly checking to make sure I was done reading it), opened the bathroom door, slammed it behind me, and prepared for battle.
After multiple attempts of swiping and missing (and, yes, I must admit, yelling and cursing), I finally crushed this hideous beast which was the size of a two-pound lobster, and flushed its remains down the toilet. (Alright, in all honesty, it wasn’t that big, but it was sizable. And it was really, really disgusting.)
With that Kafkaesque horror story now over, I crawled back into bed with the intention of picking up where I left off, to get a couple more hours of sleep.
But just as I was about to doze off, my wife came in and sat down on the bed next to me to ask me this crucially-important question:
“Did you really kill it…or are you just lying to me again?”
Not fully awake and coherent, and after the exhaustion of my traumatic bug-battle -- combined with this now, second, rude awakening -- I was like, “What -- what are you talking about???”
At which point I remembered – and burst out laughing from the recollection of -- the one and only time I lied to her in our ten-plus years of marriage:
It was back in 2007 and we had just moved into our new apartment. Having just sat down to dinner, we were both jolted out of our seats in horror by the sight of a gigantic, disgusting roach (is there any other kind in NYC?) that had come crawling out of a still-open hole in the floorboard where we just had some construction work done.
After many attempts of swiping and slamming at it with a rolled-up newspaper, I finally yelled, "Got him!", gathered up the dead roach in a paper towel, and made a huge show of crumbling it up and tossing it into the kitchen trash can.
My wife’s elated response, “My hero!”
Only, the truth is: I didn't get him. After much chasing and swatting and missing, my tiny tormentor had darted and dashed and evaded me, eventually scurrying back into the hole in the wall from whence he came. And I was hungry and just wanted to eat my dinner which was getting cold. So I doused the floorboard area with Raid, sealed up the hole with paper towels and aluminum foil, and sat down to eat my dinner. Done.
Only it wasn’t done: The nightmare was just beginning.
For, five minutes later, after finally diving into our dinner, my wife shrieked, “Oh my god – there’s another one!!!”
Uh oh. This was a literal “Moment of Truth”: Do I confess that I had failed miserably in my Battle of the Roach, and that I had given up the chase because I just wanted to sit down to eat my dinner – and, thereby, lose my “hero” status in the eyes of my new wife and be labeled from this day forward as a bald-faced liar; or do I continue my charade of having killed the previous roach…which would then only lead my wife to think we had a large-scale infestation problem on our hands in our new apartment…in which case we would have no other choice but to move out?
Do I tell the truth…or was I now in what Seinfeld would have labeled a “must-lie situation”?
So I made the decision: I would come clean and tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
And I made the promise – to myself and to my wife – to never lie to her about anything ever again.
A Few Leadership Lessons From This "Bug's Life" Tale
So what lessons can we take from this episode that we can apply not only to our personal relationships, but to the world of business and leadership as well?
In short, when you lie – about anything – that’s it: You are now, from this day forth, branded “a liar.” That is now your reputation. Once you plant a seed of doubt in someone’s mind, no matter how small and/or trivial, that seed never goes away. Luckily for me, my wife now only distrusts me when it comes to bugs. But to someone else, or if you have been found to lie or bend the truth repeatedly, everything you say thereafter will be subject to questioning and testing of its validity. And it forever casts its doubt on your trustworthiness – as a person, and as a leader.
Sadly, in this “post-truth” world we’re currently living in – of fake news, falsified data, and “alternative facts” – it is more important than ever to be viewed as a person of integrity, honesty, credibility, and trust. For, once you lose people’s trust, that’s it…your reputation is shot. This is deadly for a leader, or somehow who aspires to be. And once you lose it, it is almost impossible to get it back. I am reminded of the saying (author unknown) that “The truth doesn’t cost anything; but a lie could cost you everything.”
So what can we do to be seen as one of those rare (in this day of age) people of integrity, honesty, credibility, and trust? Here are a few simple tips and guidelines to keep in mind:
- It’s sounds obvious, but always tell the truth. ALWAYS. Without spin, or bias. Separate verifiable, reality-based “facts” from claims or opinions…and make it clear at any given time, which it is that you are expressing.
- Be authentic; be transparent; be accountable.
- Say what you mean, and mean what you say.
- Remember the old saying that “Actions speak louder than words.” It’s true.
- Keep promises and commitments, follow-up, and follow-through.
- If you don’t know something, just say you don’t know; don’t just make sh*t up as so many seem to do.
- If you know, but honestly can’t say (e.g., for reasons of confidentiality, or for ethical or legal reasons)…just say, “I know, but, sorry, I cannot say.” People will respect that.
- If you have inadvertently provided untrue, inaccurate, or mistaken information, acknowledge it, admit it, apologize for it, and correct it. Again, people will respect and appreciate that. And you will re-gain their trust as a result.
And, lastly, remember that one little lie about one little (ok, gigantic and hideous) insect could potentially continue to haunt you – and may continue to “bug” the person you lied to – even a decade or more later.
For more on this important topic of building trust, please see my post entitled “For a Leader, Is It More Important To Be Liked, Admired, Respected, or Trusted?” featuring my Hierarchy of Followership model.