Firing Line: When You Don't Know, Find Out

Leaders do more harm than good when they share misinformation, when they give an answer they don't know with relative certainty is true, or when they say something's going to happen and it doesn't.
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"Firing Line" is a new column about company management by Matthew "Whiz" Buckley, author of the upcoming book "From Sea Level to C Level" that draws on his experiences in both the military and corporate America.

Why is it so hard for business leaders to admit they don't know something?

Is it ego? Is it fear? Is it because they think their customers and the market in general don't respond well to uncertainty?

Whatever the reason or motivation, leaders do more harm than good when they share misinformation, when they give an answer they don't know with relative certainty is true, or when they say something's going to happen and it doesn't.

Let's examine

Boeing's

(BA) - Get Report

communication, or lack thereof, regarding the production and delivery of its new 787 Dreamliner.

There have been more course corrections on this program than even a former fighter pilot can keep track of. Boeing initially said there were no production problems, and they'd deliver the plane on time to customers. Then they said there were production problems, but they continued to promise their deliveries on time. In January 2008, Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Scott Carson said there were definite production problems and Boeing would not meet its delivery schedule. This seemed like a final admission, but the zigzagging continued throughout 2008.

You can imagine the frustration of carriers expecting their deliveries based upon this string of ambiguities. You can also imagine the damage done to Boeing's reputation for reliability and consistency. I think Boeing is a great company. I trusted my life to a Boeing product, the F/A-18 Hornet, for 15 years.

As a leader in the military, I was taught to say, "I don't know," if I didn't know an answer. But the next words out of my mouth were always, "But I'll find out."

Business leaders want to give the appearance of stability in their organizations, and they will often say and do anything to protect that image. Until

Enron

collapsed, CEO Ken Lay set new standards for bad management, and the results resonate to this day. Days before his company imploded,

Bear Stearns

CEO Alan Schwartz was on TV reporting that his firm's balance sheet was strong and liquidity issues were unfounded.

In the spring and summer of 2008, the heads of

Lehman Brothers

,

Goldman Sachs

(GS) - Get Report

,

Morgan Stanley

(MS) - Get Report

and

JPMorgan Chase

(JPM) - Get Report

indicated in some way or another that the end of the credit crisis was near.

The head of Goldman Sachs said, "We're probably in the third or fourth quarter" of the crisis, and the head of Morgan Stanley told shareholders the crisis was in the eighth or ninth inning. These were the smartest guys in the room, and they weren't even close.

Maybe this was an attempt to calm jittery markets or keep Washington and its band of merry lawmakers at bay. Whatever the reason, they were wrong, and when companies announced another round of poor earnings, the market took another hit. These incorrect predictions shook investor confidence even further.

Why attempt to predict the end of something when clearly no one had the faintest clue? I'm not a market genius, but I knew the pain wasn't over, as did most of Main Street.

The smartest answer from one of these heavies would've been, "I don't know when this will be over." He would've been the only one who was right. People respect the truth, even if the news is bad. Backtracking is far worse for your company's reputation than just coming out with it from the start. People are forgiving.

At the first sign of production problems, Carson should have said, "Folks, I need to take a long, hard look at the situation and get you a better answer than the one I have right now." Yes, the company may have taken a short-term hit, but the markets have short memories, and people have an amazing ability to adjust. Instead, Boeing treated its shareholders and the market to a rollercoaster ride, and its stock price fluctuated accordingly.

Saying, "I don't know, but I'll find out" demonstrates character. You're being honest, and you're making it clear that your intent is to provide the most accurate information possible. It happens in business, and it happens in the military.

The most tragic example in recent memory was the death of Cpl. Pat Tillman in April 2004. The former NFL player enlisted in the military with his brother after 9/11, turning down a three-year, multimillion contract with the Arizona Cardinals. His brother gave up a professional baseball career to enlist. The two were ideal role models for the U.S. Army -- young, good-looking and patriotic.

Pat Tillman died during a firefight in Afghanistan, and questions surround his death to this day. Initially, the Army didn't know if he had died as a result of an ambush by insurgents, a roadside bomb, or friendly fire. While the Army was fumbling the investigation in Afghanistan, military and civilian leadership back home awarded Tillman a Silver Star, the Purple Heart and a promotion after his death.

Not until weeks later did the Army finally inform Tillman's parents that their son died from friendly fire. Congressional hearings followed, and the Army's performance was nothing short of embarrassing, bordering on criminal.

Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, recently nominated by President Obama to lead the war in Afghanistan, was involved in withholding many details of the incident. He told investigators at the time he "couldn't recall his actions" and had a "bad memory." Pat Tillman is a hero, no matter what happened. The Army and its leadership had an opportunity to say, "We don't know, but we'll find out." They didn't, and they damaged the reputation of the Army.In testimony in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee recently, McChrystal said, "We failed the family. And I was part of that, and I apologize for it." He said, however, that he believed the Silver Star was warranted.

Leaders, whether on the front lines or in the front office, need to know that getting the truth out early and often is far better in the long run than a string of ambiguous updates and ever-changing revisions. Hearing from a leader "I don't know, but I'll find out," is an indication that they're being open and honest and want to do it right.

Matthew "Whiz" Buckley is the Managing Partner of

Check6 LLC

, a business-consulting firm specializing in leadership development, risk management, and strategic planning for Fortune 500 companies and related organizations. Whiz flew the F-18 Hornet for the U.S. Navy. He's a graduate of TOPGUN, has close to 400 carrier landings, and flew 44 combat sorties over Iraq. He transitioned to the business world after he was scheduled to fly his first flight as an airline pilot on 9/11. Instead, he ended up flying combat air patrol over the U.S. He rose rapidly though corporate America, starting as Managing Director of Strategy at a Wall Street firm, to CEO of a financial media company. He is an internationally recognized speaker and combined his unprecedented experiences in the military and corporate America in the writing of From Sea Level to C Level.