On honesty

Back in my teens, I stumbled over a book at the library called The New Hacker’s Dictionary. This was apparently a print edition of an ongoing collection of jargon and folklore from various hacker subcultures…by which I mean people who do cool things with computers and not security breakers. I found much of the book to be really funny, even though I didn’t have a frame of reference for much of what the book discussed.

For example, the SNAFU principle, which reads as follows: “True communication is possible only between equals, because inferiors are more consistently rewarded for telling their superiors pleasant lies than for telling the truth.” There was even a fable, illustrating that point, which I reproduce here:

In the beginning was the plan,
and then the specification;
And the plan was without form,
and the specification was void.

And darkness
was on the faces of the implementors thereof;
And they spake unto their leader,
saying:
“It is a crock of shit,
and smells as of a sewer.”

And the leader took pity on them,
and spoke to the project leader:
“It is a crock of excrement,
and none may abide the odor thereof.”

And the project leader
spake unto his section head, saying:
“It is a container of excrement,
and it is very strong, such that none may abide it.”

The section head then hurried to his department manager,
and informed him thus:
“It is a vessel of fertilizer,
and none may abide its strength.”

The department manager carried these words
to his general manager,
and spoke unto him
saying:
“It containeth that which aideth the growth of plants,
and it is very strong.”

And so it was that the general manager rejoiced
and delivered the good news unto the Vice President.
“It promoteth growth,
and it is very powerful.”

The Vice President rushed to the President’s side,
and joyously exclaimed:
“This powerful new software product
will promote the growth of the company!”

And the President looked upon the product,
and saw that it was very good.

Oh, I remember reading this and laughing. Laughing! Because, really, isn’t this a silly way to function? How can good decisions be made if everyone is…maybe not lying but shading the truth? So silly.

I was talking with my brother-in-law recently about his job. Every time we talk, it seems like things have gone from bad to worse, and I really feel for him. Some of the latest news is that my brother-in-law’s boss is probably going to be forced out from his position. You see, there was a merger, and the company ended up with two people filling one position. My brother-in-law’s boss tends to be a straight-shooter, trying to tell it like it is. The other person…well, he’s more political, and the executives like him better. And, so often, “political” means “shading the truth to shelter you from the ugly reality.”

From one perspective, executives are paid to make good decisions. How can they do this if they receive bad information? But then, how many executives establish a pattern of being willing to hear the bad news without assigning blame?

So, let me propose a model executive for you: Vito Corleone.

For those of you who don’t know, Vito Corleone is the titular character of The Godfather. He is the head of the Corleone crime family. And he is so good at it. Unlike so many of the other mob leaders that you see in The Godfather (including his own sons), Vito is an excellent leader and executive. One aspect of this is established fairly early in the movie. Tom Hagen, Vito’s advisor and a quasi-adopted son of Vito’s, is handling some negotiations for the family. When the negotiations fall apart, he asks to be taken to the airport quickly. As he says, “Mr Corleone is a man who insists on hearing bad news at once.”

This statement pays off in an incredible scene later in the movie, which you can see here.

Earlier in the movie, Vito was critically wounded by an attack by a rival mob, leaving his eldest son Sonny Corleone in charge. Sonny is quite the hothead, which his enemies use to their advantage, baiting him into the open and then brutally gunning him down.

And so our scene opens on Tom Hagen, who is fortifying himself with a stiff drink before going upstairs to tell Vito that his son is dead. He is forestalled by Vito, out of bed for the first time since being shot, finding him. Vito knows that something bad has happened, and he wants his advisor to tell him. Tom protests that he was about to come up…but Vito realizes that Tom was trying to gather himself.

And so Vito presses. “But you needed a drink first.” Tom nods wordlessly. Vito says, “And now you’ve had your drink.”

And so Tom tells him the truth. No lying. No shading the truth. No evasion. “They shot Sonny on the causeway. He’s dead.”

And Vito responds in an extraordinary way.

First, he makes a swift executive decision. We are ending this war. No more fighting. Call the peace conference.

Second, he comforts Tom. Think about that for a second. Rather than lashing out at the man who brought him the most terrible news a father could receive, he reaches out in comfort to the messenger.

He honors the culture of their organization. We tell each other the truth, no matter what. And that is one of the ways that Vito Corleone is a great executive.

Organizations live or die by their communications. If the members of an organization cannot be open and honest with each other, that organization will die. And the responsibility for this rests first with the leadership. Do you reward being told bad news? Do you insist on hearing bad news at once? Or, somewhere along the line, have you succumbed to the SNAFU principle, content with pleasant falsehoods from your reports?

Do you have the courage to hear the truth?

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