Iván Fernández

A two-minute video tells an inspiring story of honesty and integrity. Kenyan runner Abel Mutai was just a few feet from the finish line but became confused with the signage and stopped. He thought he’d finished the race.

A Spanish athlete, Iván Fernández, was right behind him. Realizing what was happening, he started shouting at the Kenyan for him to continue running; but Mutai didn’t understand his Spanish.

Fernandez caught up to Mutai and, instead of passing him, pushed him to victory.

A reporter asked Ivan, “Why did you do this?” Ivan replied, “My dream is that someday we can have a kind of community life where we push and help each other to win.” The reporter asked again, “But you could have won! Why did you let the Kenyan win?”

Ivan replied, “I didn’t deserve to win. I did what I had to do. He was the rightful winner. He created a gap I could not have closed. What would be the merit of this medal? What would my mother think of it?”

Truth Decay: Do You Believe Me or Your Own Eyes?

Contrast that powerful example with the lies, deceit, and conspiracy theories flooding our news channels and social media feeds. It’s tempting to believe that dishonesty has become the best policy — and political strategy.

It feels like “alternative facts” are twisting societal norms. Too often, we’re hearing about, or personally experiencing, broken promises, cheating, “shading the truth,” cutting corners, or failing to follow through. It can feel like we’re trapped in a reality warp like the scene from the Groucho Marx movie, Duck Soup; “Who you going to believe, me, or your own eyes?”

Caught in the Act: Doing versus Being an Authentic Leader

In Oscar Wilde’s “A Woman of No Importance,” Lady Hunstanton says to Mrs. Allonby, “How clever you are, my dear! You never mean a single word you say.” Some people seem to feel that leadership is about image and appearances. They try to look and act the part. They work hard at faking their sincerity. They’re about as authentic as “natural vinyl.”

But everyone’s “BS detectors” are getting ever better at spotting hypocritical leadership acting. We’re more clearly spotting the difference between leadership doing and being.

Joe Folkman’s latest book, The Trifecta of Trust: The Proven Formula for Building and Restoring Trust (click here for my review/key points), draws from Zenger Folkman’s large 360 assessment database. Joe reports, “after years of analysis, I discovered that the atom of leadership is trust…leaders who are trusted have significantly higher levels of leadership effectiveness and inspire greater discretionary effort from their direct reports…teams with below-average trust, 64 percent of the team members are thinking about quitting, and only 19 percent are willing to put extra effort into their work.”

In All Honesty: Keys to Building Trust

Here are a few key points Joe Folkman’s trust research uncovered for interweaving honesty, integrity, and trust:

  • Raters are 3.2 times better at predicting a leader’s trust levels than the leader is him or herself.
  • Leaders who overrated their trust effectiveness had worse relationships, lower collaboration, and communications. They were seen as less technically skilled, poorer problem solvers, and less able to develop others.
  • Trust and a leader’s overall effectiveness sink or soar in tandem. “You can easily conclude that a leader’s overall effectiveness is driven by the extent they are trusted.”
  • By working on increasing their leadership effectiveness, less trusted leaders were able to make dramatic improvements in trust levels when rated again in 18 to 24 months.
  • The main factors leading to loss of trust are damaged relationships, saying one thing and doing another, claiming expertise without the knowledge, the one-person show, resisting and rejecting feedback, and the pushy driver for results.
  • Joe’s research shows strong evidence for leaders being able to rebuild trust. Among the twelve actions for rebuilding trust: being a role model, encouraging cooperation, resolving conflicts, strengthening communications, giving honest feedback, coaching and mentoring, being open to new ideas, and staying focused on the big picture.

Highly Effective Leaders Are the Real Deal

The leaders most of us admire — and follow — embody the leadership clichés like “walk the talk” or “lead by example.” Strong leaders maintain a close connection between what they say and what they do. Their video is synchronized with their audio.

In The Book of Virtues, former Secretary of Education, William Bennett writes, “to be honest is to be real, genuine, authentic, and bona fide. To be dishonest is to be partly feigned, forged, fake, or fictitious. Honesty expresses both self-respect and respect for others. Dishonesty fully respects neither oneself nor others. Honesty imbues lives with openness, reliability, and candor; it expresses a disposition to live in the light. Dishonesty seeks shade, cover, or concealment. It is a disposition to live partly in the dark.”

When an inauthentic leader is exposed, it darkens our view of all leaders — hypocritical and authentic. This is a persistent challenge for all who aspire to strengthen their leadership. As the proverb advises, we can curse the darkness or light a candle.

Photo used with permission of Iván Fernández Anaya