As the story goes, when asked by his father about who chopped down the cherry tree, George Washington said “I cannot tell a lie, I did it with my little hatchet.” While this actually did not happen, throughout his life, Washington demonstrated a strict adherence to telling the truth, especially to himself.
Historical accounts tell story after story of Washington going beyond the known and established to undertake new and innovative projects – like the octagonal barn for thrashing wheat, or rotating crops to keep the fields vibrant. He was absolutely clear about refusing to permit an imperial Presidency.
These examples show Washington as an innovator, an entrepreneur, who took concept to plan to execution, and demanded knowing the truth about it at every stage (concept = potential; plan = risk/reward expectations; execution = resulting level of success).
Noticeably missing from history are stories of ideas and projects which did not succeed. Personally, I find it impossible that even Washington could have gotten it right 100% of the time.
What I do believe is he truthfully assessed the stages of the concept-plan-execution path and stopped a project if the result of a phase was insufficient or the risk too great – based on sticking to the truth rather than relying on a dream, a wish, or a hope to achieve success.
…And he learned from these experiences.
In the French and Indian War, Colonel Washington acted on the truth as he knew it – that the French soldiers and Indians were a small, ill equipped force, so he chased after them. Turned out that they were a much larger superior force with plenty of supplies and ammo. Washington led his troop back to Fort Necessity, where he fought a major battle and was forced to surrender to the French.
The truth as he knew it, from earlier observation and gathered intelligence, was not correct…when they chased the other soldiers and warriors far away from the protection of the fort, he learned tragically that they were a vastly superior force and well supplied. Seeing that he was impossibly outnumbered, Washington surrendered.
While this reflects a military failure by Washington, it is clear that he continued to tell himself the truth as circumstances changed, unlike General Custer many years later, who, because of faulty intelligence, refused to acknowledge the Indians were a superior force – and he tragically lost the battle.
Washington learned well from this defeat and was never again forced to surrender during his military career – like the carpenter who measures twice and cuts once, he sought intelligence from several sources and used this for better strategic battle planning.
As leaders, owners, or entrepreneurs, we can find ourselves in a situation where reality is a bitter pill and telling ourselves the truth is painful.
If a project is showing signs of failure, or a service/product line is meeting the needs of fewer customers, or the market price for your company is much less than you had expected, the temptation may be to rely on a dream, wish, or hope for a miracle outcome.
However, like winning the lottery, while miracles may happen…it’s not too often and not to you. Taking action based on reality (the truth) is ultimately a better choice.
Truth may not make things easier, but it can increase the odds and magnitude of success, compared to the alternative.
Facts are a building block of truth, and John Adams captures the point about sticking to the truth quite well in his quote:
Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.
Want more? See the Final Frontier for insight and ideas.