I was overseas in 1997, on assignment in a Middle East country in what could only be described as an “everybody-has-to-go-through-it” temporary assignment. My predecessor had told me that the bad guys had slowly, over time, moved a host of military equipment to locations in violation of UN Security Council resolutions. But those movements didn’t appear anywhere in official reports. Why, I asked. He responded by saying that nobody wants to make that call.
So my colleagues (Todd Kelley and Dan Simpson) and I set about collecting evidence for what so many people believed had happened. We systematically recorded every instance of any collection of evidence that pointed to these violations as well as any which pointed away from it. What, I thought, could be more clear and unambiguous than hard evidence? Wow, what a naive young man I was.
When I presented this evidence to my colleagues who thought it was all a sham, I was told that the individuals reporting on the illegal arms movements were at best mistaken and at worst liars. Now, why, I asked, would someone make up something like that? I was told that perhaps these people wanted to be relevant. Now there’s a doozy, the pot calling the kettle black.
One person senior to me in the organization said that I could never report what I thought was going on because if I did, it would reach the Chief of Staff and perhaps the President himself. That is when I asked him if truth changed based on the rank of the recipient. He answered, “but if you report this, the President might be forced to respond and you’d be responsible.” I told him that the People expected us to find and report the truth and they expected the President to decide what to do with it. We don’t withhold truth because we’re concerned what might or might not happen.
The important break came when a young Marine officer named Matt Reiley (now a Colonel), came to me and said, “Sir, I don’t understand everything you’ve been saying lately, but I do believe you. What can I do to help?” With his assistance, certain national level assets began systematically look for what we knew was already there and in a matter of three days everything was confirmed.
You’d think that was the happy ending, but no. There, in the Middle East, 10 hours ahead of Washington, we receive a call from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and our general and two colonels tell me “You go take the call.” I was asked point blank how all this threatening equipment could have been moved so quickly and right under our noses without us knowing about it. It fell to me, then still a rather junior officer, to report the obvious truth that it had been there for months and years, that hundreds of people – flyers and ground officers – from multiple countries, have known about this truth and worked around it for years, and that an equally obstinate group of people didn’t want to look for confirmation because of what the implications might mean.
My friends, just because your findings may lead your business to be audited doesn’t mean you shouldn’t report it. If your organization is undermanned, untrained, or ill-equipped, reporting yourself as fully qualified or fully capable doesn’t make your peoples’ jobs magically easier or make you succeed against competitors. Truth, in this sense, is not good or bad. It just is. You owe it to your organization, no matter what level you are in it, to always report the truth.
If you are considering a move to a new organization or company, one question you out to consider asking is how the organization deals with bad news when it is reported from the field. If you get a sense that nobody ever reports bad news, or that such reports are looked at unfavorably, you might think of turning and running in the opposite direction.
Mark Tapper once told a group of officers in Washington that if something wasn’t right in their work, he would first consider whether he had prepared or equipped them to carry out the task. Only after that would he consider whether they had done anything wrong. That is the environment in which truth doesn’t change based on the rank of the recipient.
Nobody wants to hear bad news. But those who are open to truth and willing to fix problems before they get out of hand are far more successful than those who pretend it away. You might take another look at my posts “There is no Magic Pixie Dust“and “Validating Assumptions” and see how truth brings focus to a good business rather than chaos.