Few principles influence success as fundamentally as truth. Truthfulness is the foundation upon which human relationships are built. Truth is the antecedent to trust and trust is the antecedent to cooperation. Without truth, sustainable success is impossible in human dealings. Hence, the importance of truth has been the subject of theological and scholarly pursuit for centuries. Since the latter part of the 20th century, the burgeoning fields of applied ethics has joined in this pursuit. In a 1992 essay, Stanford Business Professor Ronald A. Howard observed: “[t]he ethical dilemmas which my students and business associates seem to face evolve around issues of truth telling.” From Wells Fargo’s creation of over 2 million fake accounts, to GM’s deadly ignition switches, to the ten-billion-dollar fraud that was the healthcare and life-science company Theranos, Inc., today’s ethical dilemmas continue to evolve around issues of truth telling. How truthful we choose to be with others has a significant bearing upon reciprocal truthfulness and trust. Adherence to truthfulness and the subsequent development of trust are vital for meaningful interpersonal relationships, healthy organizational cultures, and prosperous societies.
Successful leaders recognize that the organizational cost of institutionalized deceit, in both financial and human terms, is too expensive to condone. In the past seven decades, we have seen an erosion of trust in many of our institutions. Only 3% of Americans trust the federal government to do what is right “just about always” while just 14% trust the federal government to do what is right “most of the time” for a combined 17% of Americans expressing trust in the federal government. In 1958, the combined percent of Americans expressing such trust was 73%. A foundation built on a first-order principle of truth telling will better equip our students with the skills to effectively deal with the moral dilemmas that evolve around truth telling and build trust with those in their professional and personal lives.