Brunswick Review The Integrity Issue

The Whole Truth

“There is no room for artifice, nor for major differences of emphasis between audiences, markets or geography,” says Brunswick’s Rob Webb.

Commentators and observers of business and political life are fond of justifying their observations by claiming the old Quaker maxim that they speak truth unto power. This slogan, however, while it can cover a noble and brave idea, can also be used to justify some fairly polemical or simply lazy opinions.

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The witness oath in English law contains a promise not only to tell the truth, but to tell the whole truth and, less obviously, to tell nothing but the truth (i.e., not many opinions needed). The concept of the whole truth is important. A statement can be true, without it being the whole truth—two British Government servants, Robert Armstrong in the “Spycatcher” trial and Alan Clark in the Arms to Iraq trial, both tried to defend the concept of being “economical with the truth” (or “actualité” as Alan Clark described it, using French to distance his Government from the content). Both exchanges led them to be the butt of jokes to this day. The fact is, however, that many still claim nobly to be telling the truth, when all they are telling is one aspect of that whole.

This raises the question of the approach to truth modern CEOs or Boards need to take today. It is a worldwide question, not a Western nor a democratic liberal concept. Most of humanity has an understanding of the difference between truth and falsehood, whether Christian, Muslim, Hindu or other.

A few years ago, a typical CEO and Board had a few well recognized stakeholders in the business to whom they needed to speak—shareholders, customers and staff were the obvious primary audience. It was possible to vary the tone and content of the messages which each received—upbeat to investors while exhorting the employee galley slaves to greater and greater endeavors.

The fact is, however, that many still claim nobly to be telling the truth, when all they are telling is one aspect of that whole.

Today, the stakeholder audience is vastly larger and corporate duties are owed far and wide. In addition, the CEO must address climate change, fossil fuels, plastics and waste, gender diversity, corporate giving programs, dealing with undemocratic regimes, sugar taxes, data rules and more. The list lengthens steadily as wealth regulation gains the ascendancy over wealth creation and conformance starts to outrank performance as a goal. A new audience of special interest is always just around the corner. The public also now expects companies to do more than comply with the law as is; they require compliance with the law as they think it ought to be.

In this world there is no room for artifice, nor for major differences of emphasis between audiences, markets or geography. There must be a single message—and it must be the whole truth.

This is where integrity is the golden key. The CEO and the Board need to understand what their company does and why; what is its social purpose; how it fulfills its obligations; and how it responds, as a citizen of its society and as a global citizen of our increasingly transparent planet. 

Often one sees these questions being addressed on the hoof in the face of a crisis—but the speed and transparency of today’s people and markets no longer allow this.

A company, in order to have “integrity,” needs an all-around knowledge of all of its values, and an embrace of them, all of the time. Only then, when the storm hits, will its anchor be seen to hold.

Steering a straight course that can be understood by all people all the time is never easy—but in today’s market it is more necessary than ever.

Rob Webb QC is a Senior Advisor based in Brunswick’s London office.

Illustration: Serge Bloch

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