Want to be a Leader? Be Honest

By | July 28, 2018

[July 28, 2018]  Do you want to be a leader?  If you answer this question like you should, the answer will be “yes” because no other answer is acceptable.  To be a leader you must learn a number of important skills.  One of them is to never punish loyal followers for being honest.

“Leaders who don’t listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing to say.” – Andy Stanley, senior pastor of North Point Community Church

Whenever I speak to new leaders, I often mention my first meeting with my company commander when I was a new U.S. Army Second Lieutenant.  My commander told me that it was important to never be afraid to give honest feedback.  Later that week, after looking into the substandard condition of vehicles in our motor pool, I told him about it.  His disposition towards me changed after that.  He noted that I was not a good team player and that I needed more experience around vehicles.

I understood at that moment that honest feedback was just lip service and would be more careful in the future.  Another lieutenant came to me and said essentially the same thing.  I learned that being a sycophant was more important and that those who spoke their minds would be punished.

In the past, I’ve written about the company commander and how I learned how NOT to be a leader from him.  I promised myself that I would never repeat his mistakes and that has been true ever since.  The commander’s unit was built on a culture of “yes men.”  Those who could have added a realistic view of the condition of the unit were not welcome; I was not welcome.

A few months later, the commander was relieved of this position and a new company commander was installed.  This new commander told us the same thing, he wanted honesty in reporting problems.  He didn’t want it screamed to the sky but wanted all of us to meet with him and the unit’s First Sergeant and go over any problems.  He was true to his word and the unit was able, after several weeks, to fix our maintenance problems.

The commander who was fired from his job could have avoided it if he had just asked for and accepted honest input.  Good leaders know that listening is one of the most powerful skills a leader can master.  It also takes a dose of humility to go along with it.

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Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

22 thoughts on “Want to be a Leader? Be Honest

  1. Nancy J

    One of my best lessons on how not to be came quite early in my life. While working for a law firm, my boss told us that she was open to whatever we had to say to make our working environment more productive. Being quite young and naïve I took her up on it. So I shared only to find out that what I said was used to label me a troublemaker. Lesson learned: not that I should not be honest but that not everyone has integrity. Her favorite quote was “Do as I say not as I do.”

  2. José Luis Rodriguez

    This article by Gen. Satterfield initially made me laugh because it reminded me of my uncle who was notorious in the family for telling all the kids to tell the truth but then telling our moms and dads about what we told him. To us, he was a ‘rat.’ Today, rats are not appreciated either.

  3. Tony B. Custer

    Leaders MUST reward honesty wherever they see it. They must reward it even if it hurts them personally. If they don’t, then the end is near for their leadership.

  4. Roger Yellowmule

    Honesty is a universal value but each society has a different level of emphasis placed on it. Likewise in the workplace where some bosses have no desire to have dishonest employees, while others don’t care. Personally, I prefer the former where honesty is welcome and rewarded.

    1. Martin Shiell

      I agree. You are on to something here Roger.

  5. Len Jakosky

    I can relate a short story about my first job. I had a boss who everyone was afraid of but I couldn’t understand why. They I discovered one day that he was a shoot the messenger kind of guy and relished in putting people down. In doing so he discouraged honesty, hard work, and loyalty. I was so glad to live there after a year that my family had a party for me.

  6. Ronny Fisher

    I am always surprised at leaders who discourage honesty. For some reason that I could never figure out, they are fired or demoted eventually for what they do. Go figure.

    1. Dale Paul Fox

      I think the just get drunk with “power” and forget about everyone else.

    2. Drew Dill

      I think they lack good mentors and have poor character.

    3. Mike Baker

      and you meet so many of them in your life. What gives?

  7. Janna Faulkner

    Good article today, Gen. Satterfield. Thank you.

  8. Bryan Lee

    I too had a boss who faked wanting honest feedback. It didn’t take me long to figure it out and I simply stopped giving any feedback whatsoever. I had plenty to offer but the “kill the messenger” attitude prevailed. I later quit when I found another job and am much happier.

  9. Greg Heyman

    Never, ever, ever discourage honesty. The results will always come back to haunt you.

  10. Mark Evans

    Ahhh, a good article to start my Saturday morning. As I get ready to take off to work (yes, some of us work weekends), I like to read up on Gen. Satterfield’s leadership blog for my latest dose of sage advice. Thanks all for your comments too as my intelligent compatriots here at https://www.theleadermaker.com.

  11. Army Captain

    I too have seen this happen but usually among more junior military officers. Those who are promoted and given more responsibility typically learn quickly that discouraging honest feedback will work against you in the long run.

  12. Max Foster

    Jonnie, I couldn’t have said it better. Thanks for making an important point. Most folks don’t realize that many senior leaders are trapped in this death cycle also. The good news is that any leader doing it can immediately stop and their organizational culture will improve. The more senior the leader, the longer it will take, but it will work.

    1. Georgie M.

      Thanks Max for another great comment about org cultures.

  13. Jonnie the Bart

    I have personally seen too many leaders fall into the trap of saying they want honest feedback but when it becomes too hard to take they renege on their promises. Then they fail because they are surrounded by “yes men.”

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