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Lies, Damned Lies and Submarines

Whenever someone mentions trust, I can’t help remembering the French submarine affair. In 2016 the Australian government had signed a multi-billion dollar contract with France for the building of a number of submarines for the Australian Navy, but after a bit of to-and-fro and a change of Prime Minister, in 2021 the Australians changed their mind and decided to go for a different kind of submarine built by a British and/or American supplier. The Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, was widely accused of lying to the French President, Emmanuel Macron, about the change.

Emmanuel Macron
Emmanuel Macron: "I don't think, I know."

When asked by an Australian TV reporter why he thought Morrison had lied to him, Macron looked straight into the camera and said, “I don’t think, I know.”

Macron’s fury at this betrayal couldn’t have been more clear. A contract had been signed, and Macron had trusted the Australian government to honour it. Not only did Morrison abandon the contract without any credible grounds for doing so, which itself is a disgraceful breach of trust, but he went on to compound his shameful behaviour by telling lies about it.

This whole episode, whilst being deeply embarrassing for all Australians, is an excellent example of trust betrayed and how that can have a corrosive impact on relationships at every level.

Leadership is built on trust. If, as a leader, your people don’t trust you then they won’t want to follow you. They’ll be continually looking over their shoulder, expecting to be stabbed in the back. This is a very unpleasant situation and it isn’t sustainable. Pretty soon they will leave, or you will. Either way it’s not going to end well for you.

Once you get a reputation for telling "porkies" you'll very quickly lose the trust of your people. Unless you are a dictator with unlimited power and authority, your leadership career is pretty much finished at this point.

As a leader, you must always tell your people as much of the truth as you can and never prevaricate, obfuscate or pretend that you have an answer when actually you don't.

Sure enough there will be times when you can’t tell the whole story because either you don’t know the truth yourself, or you’re bound by confidentiality. When this happens, you can still tell the truth by being straight with your people about why you can’t tell them everything.

If it’s because you don’t know, say so! “I don’t know, let’s find out,” is an engaging and truthful answer. Never, ever bullshit your people in an attempt to make yourself seem knowledgeable. They’ll see right through you and the trust that you’ve been working so hard to build with them will be damaged.

In the same way, let your people know that you expect them to be truthful with you and with each other, and hold them to account for that. If there’s someone on your team whom you can’t trust then that person has to go. Get them off the team, ASAP, because if they stay they’ll undermine you and demoralise everyone else.

Scott Morrison
Scott Morrison: what lies before us...

Where this leaves Morrison remains to be seen. Here in Australia we have a reputation for not trusting our politicians as far as we could throw them, and even then we wouldn’t turn our back. It's kind of expected that they will be "economical with the truth" and we take what they say with a large degree of scepticism. But such a blatant demolition of trust, that brought shame and embarrassment on the whole nation, is not so easily forgotten or passed off as normal, acceptable, political behaviour. It is to be hoped that Morrison will pay the price and be unequivocally booted out of office at the forthcoming Australian federal election.

"What lies behind us and what lies before us are as nothing compared to what lies right to our faces." - Traditional, with a nod to Henry S Haskins

Morrison, of course, is not alone in being outed as a leader whose notion of truth bears little resemblance to reality. Over the years quite a lot of nations have been led by unsavoury characters whose lies have achieved legendary status. Quite how we are inveigled into putting our trust in such people is a matter for some conjecture.

Liars do not make good leaders and we would all do well to remember that, both as leaders ourselves and when we’re choosing who we’re going to trust to lead us.

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