Beware the Shifty Shades of Gray

Beware the Shifty Shades of Gray 150 150 Dan Veitkus

Author Dan Veitkus 

The important distinction between embellishment and intellectual honesty – a domain where relevant facts and information are not omitted, nor are they presented with an intention to mislead – has resurfaced in the public consciousness. Always relevant, this distinction should serve as a reminder to all leaders that trustworthy communication is dependent on accurate facts.


Disciples of servant leadership share a common allergic reaction to the “gray zone”, with preference towards trustworthy and consistent communication. Stephen M.R. Covey promotes the “trust tax” appellation to accurately describe the withdrawal made against our credibility and our productivity when we fail to speak, act and operate truthfully and ethically. The gray area that may surface for debate in business, politics or science should not be confused with the essential requirement to be intellectually honest in our communications.


 Consider the implications of a study by Mercer Management Consulting that revealed 60 percent of employees surveyed did not trust that management was communicating with them honestly.


 What does this say about the environment we live and work in? Can we really expect to make progress on business priorities such as growth, employee engagement, customer retention and breakthrough innovation when leadership fails the fundamental premise of trust? When a leader ventures into the gray zone, their credibility and trust with constituents will only decline. And the option for recovery? Not guaranteed.


Consistent intellectual honesty is essential to establish credibility as a leader. Why is this consistency such a critical requirement for leaders? For starters, auditors look for it. Shareholders demand it. Athletes practice it. Consistency is an essential part of the formula for sustainable success. Consistency guides organizations when they set policies and guidelines. Consistency allows leaders to manage difficult situations fairly and effectively. And the practice of consistent communication creates an environment of trust among colleagues and stakeholders – even when they have good reason to disagree – that is essential in order to deliver sustainable results.


Successful leaders know that repeatable success on the field of play, in the boardroom or at home depends on consistent execution of the fundamentals. They also embrace this truth: The credibility of their leadership demands intellectual honesty.


“Trust is equal parts character and competence,” asserts Stephen M.R. Covey. “You can look at any leadership failure and it’s always a failure of one or the other.”


Let’s look at three straightforward commitments that can effectively guide every leader to stay the course and avoid the Shifty Shades of Gray:  


  • Get comfortable with the expression “I don’t know.” There are times when genuine vulnerability is appropriate and, “I don’t know” may be the best and most truthful answer.
  • Slow down our jaws and our thumbs. When we take time to think about our comments and commitments – even a moment or two before expressing them – we often save ourselves from the temptation to exaggerate, embellish or re-write history to suit our personal agenda.
  • Take an inventory of the trust taxes and trust dividends you are generating each day and avoid the trap of excusing yourself for playing in the gray zone. Too many folks find themselves justifying the drift into gray to avoid conflict, to advance an agenda or to shape a narrative, which may be detached from reality. The sooner you pull back the better. The gray zone can lead to the dark side, the place completely void of all trust. 

And when trust is broken, the game is over — even if you don’t realize it.


The commitment to practice the discipline of intellectual honesty will require effort and practice. But the effort invested will be far less than the tax extracted by your superior, your partner, your friends and even your hitherto adoring followers and constituents if you choose to operate in the gray zone.