My grandpa would frequently say to me “There’s no right way to do a wrong thing.” The resignation this week of embattled Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel is the latest public example of the consequences a leader can face when he chooses not to be honest and transparent in his duties and relationships with others.
If you’re not familiar with the story, this week’s Sports Illustrated has a cover story that is worth reading as a leadership case study. The cliff notes version is that last year Jim Tressel was made aware of behaviors his players were engaged in that were against NCAA rules (exchanging personal school memorabilia in return for tattoos and other services), and rather than alerting his superiors and the school’s NCAA compliance office, he kept the information to himself. It wasn’t until the story came to light that Tressel admitted that he was dishonest and hid the truth.
Being honest is a core attribute of any successful leader. Being honest in your relationships with others strikes at the core of who you are as a person because your actions reveal what you truly value and believe as a leader. Honesty is demonstrated not only by telling the truth, but not covering up, or obscuring the truth. Honesty means admitting your mistakes and accepting responsibility for your actions. As illustrated in this case with Jim Tressel, covering up the truth always leads to worse consequences than if you own up to your misdeeds from the very beginning.
Now, I have to practice some transparency and be completely honest by saying that I’m a native Michigander and huge University of Michigan football fan. “That school down south” is our chief rival, and any day that’s a bad day for Ohio State is usually a good day for me. But in this case, I’m saddened, because Jim Tressel has always had a public persona of a leader who “got it,” and even though his team has had my team’s number the last several years, I’ve quietly admired the way he’s led his team. He’s written books on what it takes to be a successful leader and he’s experienced a tremendous amount of professional success. This experience has reminded me of the delicate nature of trust in relationships. Trust can take a long time to build, and an instant to ruin.
Honesty is always the best policy. Period.
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