It's almost impossible to live the last few weeks in the United States without hearing the number 21,500 a lot. For all the Rip van Winkles out there, this is the number of new troops that we're being told will be sent to Baghdad.
To me, the troop announcement really illustrates the dangers of partial disclosure -- both in the political realm and in business. It should teach everyone in the business trenches about the importance of telling the truth right from the start.
The reality of the new Iraq offensive is not about 21,500 additional soldiers, because for every soldier on the battlefield, there are additional support troops required to back them up. From transporting fuel to maintaining barracks to staffing hospitals -- troop numbers are only part of the story.
Estimates here vary. Some people believe that these additional troops will require only 15,000 additional support troops. Others argue the number will be closer to 28,000. Either way, the real number is pushing 40 large (maybe I've been watching too much of "The Sopranos," but I just love replacing thousand with the word "large" when referring to money).
It's easy to talk about the irresponsibility of government when it comes to these number lapses. But many corporations, and many of us, are every bit as guilty of a serious lack of disclosure.
Sarbanes-Oxley has forced corporations to be more truthful. But it's not enough (and before you start e-mailing me your complaints about SOX, don't blame government when WorldCom, Tyco and numerous other scofflaws are responsible. And if you decide to write to me saying we should lighten up on government regulation of corporations, please explain how corporations can be trusted in light of the backdating options scandal that is currently engulfing hundreds of businesses.)
Sure, SOX burns a lot of time and money to comply with, but the integrity of the financial markets is worth a bit of hassle to maintain, don't you think?
Every time I'm doing research for a talk, I always hear management complaining about the lack of loyalty and trust in today's work force. Ironically, I often hear the same thing from employees about management. To me this is not an unrelated issue. I believe that corporations hire smart people and then seem surprised when these smart people are alienated by the games that many corporations try to play with them.
So what is the solution here? We all need to learn how to rip the Band-Aid off quickly when it comes to bad news -- get everything on the table and get it over with. Sure, it will be a bit more painful, but at least you'll be done with the damage and won't have to deal with it over and over again.
To the government: Tell us the real number of troops involved.
And to business: Tell us the real cost of the new benefit change, or whatever painful corporate announcement that is in the offing.
Just tell us the truth, because unlike the famous Jack Nicholson line, we can handle the truth better than a bunch of spin and smoke and mirrors.
"When a man sells 11 ounces for 12, he makes a compact with the devil, and sells himself for the value of an ounce." -- Henry Ward Beecher
From: "What Leaders Really Do" by John Kotter (Harvard Business School Press, 1999)