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Authentic Leadership – when is Truth a Gaffe?

‘We don’t have a strategy’. Dangerous words for a President to utter.
But since honesty and integrity lead to the holy grail of trust in leadership, what could you learn from how to truthfully answer questions about strategy that demand an answer?

‘We don’t have a strategy yet.’

An inconvenient truth a reassuring lie

Dangerous words for a President to utter. The press had a field-day and he was heavily criticised for his ‘gaffe’ – which in political terms simply means revealing an inconvenient truth.

I was struck by how strongly the situation and Obama’s words reflect the importance of strategy and communication in the context of authentic leadership.

How can you avoid a similar trap?


Getting to a definite, unified and aligned strategy takes time. Especially when stakes are high.

Regardless of whether you’re an entrepreneurial start-up or a fast-growth company breaking through the next phase of growth; getting to a strategy involves research, intelligence (data gathering), risk and resource evaluation, cost considerations and scenario planning.

Regardless of how well defined it is, every strategy is simply a plan that is evolving and responding to daily analysis and emerging trends.

The truth is, while not ideal, you won’t always have a definite strategy in place, but if you don’t communicate what you intend to do, you’ll appear weak and indecisive.


As an authentic leader you want to be honest. You want to have integrity in your communication – we all know this leads to the holy grail of trust. But what if you genuinely can’t disclose the full picture?

You will always have a view of what the strategic options are. Outline those options – to whatever level of detail is appropriate – and explain what the plan is to get to a definitive answer. Even if it’s at a high level, you will still have addressed the issue.

Here’s the formula:

Be specific about what you can communicate, and follow it with what is less clear or certain.

People will always remember what you said first.

E.g. ‘These are the strategic options we are evaluating given the current risks’. Communicate facts and known data to reassure, and to minimise the focus on areas that are still being developed.

What you communicate and how means you can still be ‘economical with the truth’, honest and have integrity.

Leaders provide security

In general, people want to feel secure, and they look to leaders in all their guises for that security.

Taking action – even if it’s the wrong action in hindsight – makes people feel secure. It gives them a sense that something is being done to either resolve a problem or achieve a goal. Sometimes you’ll feel pressure to take action before the strategy has been finalised.

Obviously context determines whether that is right or not, but authentic leadership means articulating the value of taking time to ensure that the strategy is right, to reinforce the reflection phase as being just as important as taking action.

If you anticipate well, take the time to articulate progress towards a strategy and communicate specifics where possible, you’ll never be accused of committing a ‘gaffe’.

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