Honest Leadership. Is the World Ready?

August 15, 2015
August 15, 2015 Joe Britto

This weekend I watched a documentary about the death of traditional advertising.

The message of The Naked Brand is simple. Consumers are too smart, too connected and too suspicious for traditional ads to work any longer. Gone are the days when you can lie to an unsuspecting population about your product (as in the case of cigarettes) or hide the fact your products are made in sweatshops. Why? Because in a connected world it’s only a matter of time before the secret gets out. To paraphrase Alex Bogusky, former ad man and current “insurgent in the new consumer revolution”: transparency happens to you or it happens because of you. But either way it happens.

Truth in Advertising, Truth in Business

That got me thinking, because when we’re talking about transparency in advertising, we’re not just talking about ad agencies. After all, an ad agency will do whatever its customers want.

I think we’d all agree we need truth in advertising. And more than that, we need truth in business. In fact, we don’t have to worry about truth in advertising if we have truth in business. Transparent ads are the by-product of a transparent company.

And to get a transparent company, you need transparent leaders.

Honest Leadership. A Dream too Far?

On August 2, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper kicked off what will be one of the longest election campaigns in Canadian history. That was possible because of rules introduced by Harper’s conservative party. Long election campaigns mean higher spending limits. When asked about the taxpayer burden of long campaigns, Harper said, “the money [for election campaigns must] come from the parties themselves, not from government resources.”

All very noble, but as the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation points out, a longer campaign means parties will spend more money making them eligible for greater reimbursements from taxpayers. Reimbursements that could reach up to $25 million dollars per party. With three main parties in Canada that leaves the Canadian taxpayer with a campaign bill of up to $75 million.

On the first day of the election campaign Harper lied.

What’s truly sad is leaders who lie aren’t unique to Canada or politicians. We know about the lies that made up Enron and the Libor scandal instigated by several of the world’s largest banks. But a lack of transparency is the way many businesses work.

Take a look at the BBC’s Apple’s Broken Promises for an inside look at how employees making IPhone 6 were treated; then recall Benetton denying its clothes were produced in the Bangladesh building that collapsed in 2013, and later admitting it did. I could go on with those kind of examples, but do I need to? Most of us already know it’s a lack of transparency that continues to let corporations wreak havoc in world.

But with increasingly aware, educated and connected consumers, how long can that strategy last?

Do we want it to?

Honesty Makes Money

There’s a parade of companies featured in The Naked Brand that have made transparency their focus—Zappos and Patagonia to name two.

What these two companies have in common is they’re successful. Very successful. And that’s because consumers appreciate honesty. Honest makes money. It’s a message some multi-nationals have noted and adopted most notably Unilever and Walmart.

Taking the Honesty Leap

Corporations are made up of people. They can be changed by the efforts of a few. They can be revolutionized by the efforts of its leaders. All it takes is a decision.

A decision to lead with honesty. But telling the truth can be scary. Despite that, if it’s a road you’d like to walk down here’s a few reminders to help along the way:

  1. We all know a lie from the truth. Pay attention when you notice yourself being less than clear
  2. Remember your willingness to be honest gives others permission to be honest too
  3. Honesty is a habit. Start by telling the truth about small things in your workplace. It’ll give you courage to speak out on bigger topics when they appear
  4. Ask yourself from time to time, “If the whole world followed me, would I be proud of where I lead it?”

And in the Interests of Honesty…

If there’s anything in this blog or website, that isn’t clear, drop me a line and I’ll do my best to make it as clear as I can.


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