I'm afraid we're developing another generation gap, and this one isn't merely cosmetic ("Can’t stand those tattoos!") or aural ("Can’t stand that music!) or even economic ("Why 'own' anything?").
No, this one is far more critical. I can deal with the questionable choices that many young people make today because I'm relatively sure we all made similar (or much worse, but probably less permanent) choices in our youth. Yet, amazingly enough, we’re still here, standing tall and offering the benefit of our wisdom, such as it is.
The gap I'm talking about threatens to undermine something so basic to the conduct of business (and especially to early-stage angel investing) that until recently there was no gap at all: Everyone accepted that trust and sincerity are absolutely fundamental to success.
I recently heard Alan Matthew, a long-time successful options and commodities trader, express it forcefully in a talk he gave to several hundred entrepreneurs. He said that in every deal he does, and in every transaction, “My word is my bond.” And it's just that simple, especially in the trading pits in Chicago, where the entire ecosystem depends on trust and the ability of everyone to rely on the commitments and honesty of the other players.
But too many of today's young entrepreneurs live in a different conceptual world, one driven by situational ethics. And it sucks.
Telling people half the story, or telling them what they want to hear instead of what they need to hear, isn't a funding solution--it's an invitation to a later slaughter. And it's usually the entrepreneur and the management team who will ultimately get killed. So it makes sense to share all the news all the time, if for no other reason than to save yourself a lot of grief down the line.
The truth never hurts unless it ought to, and sometimes it's a powerful wake-up call for all concerned. There's never a really good or special time to decide to tell the truth: the time is all the time.
But, if you haven't been in the position of having to make the right choice regardless of how hard or discouraging it may be, or how it may impact your financing or prospects, and if there's no one more experienced around to guide you because you're running full-speed ahead and you're making it up as you go, it's far too easy to take a quick slide down that slippery ethical slope. But once you lose someone's confidence--once they come to believe that you don't share and abide by their fundamental values--you will never fully regain their trust and support.
An old friend of mine used to say, by way of excusing virtually anything disgusting he managed to do, that exceptional people deserve special concessions. I'm afraid his disease may be spreading. We have an entire generation of kids who have been told (at least since second grade) that they're amazing, exceptional, and completely unique. So it's just a short step for them to conclude that the ordinary rules don't apply to them, that morals are just for the little people and they're way above that mundane conformity--and far too smart for it as well.
As I often kiddingly say when I'm talking about building your company’s culture and instilling critical values in your people and your business: "These are my principles. If you don't like them, I have others." But that's always intended as a joke, because in the real world we don’t get to pick and choose when to honor our promises and commitments. We say what we'll do and then we do what we said we'd do. It couldn't be more straightforward: You don't get to be truthful some of the time or at some later time when it's better or more convenient. The truth doesn't vary based on circumstances.
We aren't always talking about intentional dishonesty or immorality; in some cases I think it's just a lack of experience and education combined with way too much enthusiasm. Entrepreneurs can talk themselves into anything (I call this the "That hooker really liked me!" condition) and, once they do, they want to sell it to the world. But whenever you find that you're having to shade the truth or forget some ugly facts in order to talk your team or an investor (or maybe even yourself) into something, you probably need to back off.
It's great to be highly motivated, but it's not even a little cool if no one trusts your motives. It takes time and hard work to build any kind of relationship, but just an instant and a hint of suspicion to destroy it. I know how hard it is to say things that no one wants to hear, but that's part of the leader's job--it's not delegable and it's not optional.
It takes a great deal of experience and a whole bunch of broken dreams and busted relationships to appreciate that to be trusted is a much greater compliment than to be loved. Entrepreneurs, without a doubt, need and want to be loved more than anything. It's part of the sickness that drives us. But, at the end of the day, trust is the only thing that you can really take to the bank.