Who can we trust? Who can we trust to tell us the truth? Especially, when the truth really matters?
This is not a new concern. And, the sense that more and more people seem to be so untrustworthy may be a false sense. I suspect that if we picked any decade, from any century, thoughtful people would be writing that there seems to be an alarming and society-threatening erosion of ethical standards evident to all.
So, now it is our turn. And, really, what do we do?
This blog post is prompted by the very disturbing exposé on 60 Minutes last night, Deception at Duke.
The story focused on the fraud perpetrated by Dr. Anil Potti at Duke University. This fraud was pulled off right under the nose of “the renowned lab of Dr. Joseph Nevins,” and Dr. Nevins had selected Dr. Potti to mentor.
Dr. Nevins believed in Dr. Potti. He clearly should not have been so trusting.
The story centered on a breakthrough discovery by Dr. Potti that would certainly bring healing to cancer patients. “80%” was the promised rate of cure. But it was all built on a house of lies; outright fraud. From the report;
Pelley: Is it a close call? Or is it abundantly clear that the data were fabricated?
Nevins: Abundantly clear.
But this brief blog post is about the deeper implications: “Are they telling us the truth?” From Enron, to BP, to mortgage lenders to borrowers to Wall Street Banks to big banks to politicians to… we face an era in which the ability to discover whether or not they “are telling us the truth” is the most important skill to develop.
How can we tell if someone is lying to us?
And, there is something of a spectrum to this. There is the outright lie, as in the case of Dr. Potti at the Duke lab. And then there is the overabundance of sloppy reporting, sloppy research, inadequate diagnosis of problems and solutions that is rampant. And some (most) of this is from well-meaning, “honest people” who simply think that know more than they actually do know or can know. And, yet, they announce their findings with such certianty.
I could give a long ist of business studies and books to add to this, like: Jim Collins and his pronouncements in Good to Great. Good to Great came out in 2001. That is eleven short years ago. Of the eleven “great’ exemplar companies, notice these three:
• Circuit City – now bankrupt
• Fannie Mae – now… we’ll, you know their many failures
• Wells Fargo – which just settled as one of the big banks with illegal practices in the foreclosure aftermath of the great 2008 financial crisis
Please do not misunderstand. I am not accusing Jim Collins of being in the same category of Dr. Potti. Dr. Potti lied. Jim Collins was wrong. That is a big difference.
Mr. Collins would argue that, at the time, these were in fact “great” companies. And his follow-up book, How the Mighty Fall, was an attempt to describe how companies can fall from greatness. I like Jim Collins’ books. But when a writer writes with his kind of certainty, and then has to explain where he missed it, maybe there should be a red flag waving saying “don’t trust what this guy says so quickly.”
(In Great by Choice, Apple is an example of a “failed company”; but, as he explains, he was describing the Apple in the years before their greatest triumphs. Here’s the flaw in his reason – their “bad years” may have been so very important to set them up for their insanely great years. So, were they truly a failure? I suspect not).
Back to the Duke story. There is no indication that Dr. Nevins in any way participated in, condoned, or ultimately excused the lies of Dr. Potti. Dr. Nevins was as astonished as the rest of us. In fact, he looked just a little shell-shocked to me in the interview. But, if the man overseeing the work did not catch the fraud, because he wanted to believe the good news, then what chance do the rest of us have in catching the fraud?
This blog post is simply an “I’m thinking about all this” post. Here is one of my thoughts; we live in a data-rich era. Every book, every study, has to have data. Jim Collins is data driven. But there is some indication that one can carefully select data to “agree with” an already reached conclusion. And, when one presents “findings” in such a “this is right, and it can be trusted” format, then when things do not turn out that way… well, trust becomes one of the casualties.
60 Minutes seemed to be asking” “Who can we ask to find out if the data really is trustworthy?” I would like to know the answer to that question.
A friend of mine, a good teacher in a very fine local MBA program, reminds me that this is not a new problem. It has always been with us, it will not go away, and…though he does not say these words, he implies that there is not much we can do about it. Ethical failure almost seems to be the human condition.
“There is not much we can do about it.” Now, that is an observation that can lead to genuine despair.
Before she was selected as the new Managing Director, Ms. Christine Lagarde, a candidate for the position of the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), made the following statement to the IMF Executive Board on June 23, 2011. You can read her entire letter here. Here are some key highlights.
As a candidate, I have listened carefully over the last few weeks to the messages conveyed to me by a large part of the membership and I would like to lay out some thoughts of mine and address some of the issues:
1. Management: the three duties of MD
If elected, I am committed to fulfil, with your support and active engagement, the three key duties of a MD: to chair the Board; to manage the staff; and to represent the institution.
Duty 1: Chairing the Board
To lay the proper foundations of such a relationship, if elected, I would call for a Board retreat before the recess.
Duty 2: Managing the staff
I am well aware that recent events have left open wounds. I know that John’s departure, coming as it does at the very worst of times, will leave a big hole. The incoming MD must take pains to show the outside world that this great institution is not only leading in terms of expertise, but also in terms of integrity and work ethics. We must consolidate and, if needed, restore staff pride in working at the IMF, to get us through the healing process.
…only strong leadership will help us overcome silo-mentality, achieve diversity, and gain in cohesion and coherence.
We collectively must focus on serving both our membership and the higher goal of the Fund, and be less inward-looking.
Duty 3: Representing the institution and bringing a vision
The MD has to lead by example, consistent with the values of integrity, independence, and discretion. The MD shall also be the loyal and strong voice of the whole membership when representing the Fund, especially in delivering messages, speaking the truth to members, be them small or large.
To conclude, should you entrust me with the challenging task of MD, I would strive, over the next five years, to build a Fund that would be adapted to a changing world; responsive, ready and able to meet all challenges, both foreseeable and unforeseeable; cooperative, listening and coordinating effectively with all stakeholders, and continuously striving to build consensus; legitimate and even-handed, to reflect a changing world.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Members of the Executive Board, thank you for your attention
Note the clear intentions:
To “lead in terms of expertise, and work ethics;” to lead with integrity; to gain in cohesion and coherence.”
I suspect that this is one of the more challenging new positions on the planet, especially after the very public scandal of the man she replaces. But she provides a pretty good reminder to all leaders with this letter: leaders are to manage the staff, represent the organization well and honorably, and bring a vision to the entire enterprise.
For the sake of many, let’s hope that Ms. Lagarde can live up to and fulfill these intentions, and set an example for other leaders in the process.
Cheryl offers: This week at Take Your Brain to Lunch, Randy Mayeux delivered a synopsis of Susan Scott’s new book, Fierce Leadership. In his remarks, he included a few from her “Memo to Managers” which I loved as soon as I heard them. The one item that I was most excited to hear was “Do not, under any circumstances, tell a lie – of either commission or omission. Do not stretch the truth, exaggerate, or make __ up to get out of trouble or make yourself look good.” I love that! Scott has captured exactly what I believe is one of the most important aspects of leadership. Tell the truth, the whole truth. I recall conversations with my own teenagers on this very topic. I wasn’t trying to make them into leaders at the time; I just wanted them to learn the valuable lesson of telling the truth. If you bend or omit the “facts” in any manner, it’s manipulating the truth to suit a purpose, almost always one that benefits the storyteller. Since either telling or not telling leads to the same result: manipulation of the facts to benefit the teller, it’s the same egregious act: lying. The link I see from being transparent to being a leader is clear. We can’t legislate integrity, ever, no matter how many seemingly clever laws we pass. However, if a leader is honest and acts consistently in an honest manner, they will be of integrity. And they will likely be successful and admired. No laws necessary!