Last Updated Sep 24, 2008 10:03 AM EDT
British businesses are suffering an epidemic of "Crowhursting" -- sending out deceptively cheery messages that bear little resemblance to the truth, says Libby Purves, recounting the tale of Donald Crowhurst, who died trying to sail around the world in The Sunday Times Golden Globe race 40 years ago.
A rookie sailor with an ill-equipped boat, Crowhurst had everything to lose -- he'd made a last-minute deal that would leave his wife and family homeless were he to fail. Yet this looked increasingly likely with each passing day.
So he decided to send back false position reports to keep his supporters enthused, while he kept a separate log of his real course. His sanity began to crumble and his morale bottomed out. Yet he went on transmitting tall tales and false positions -- at one point, his reports made it appear that he was in the lead.
Deep in the lie, he carried on sending upbeat messages. In July 1, 1969, after 243 days alone, he "stepped or fell from his boat and drowned", his diaries testimony to his unravelling mind.
It's relevance today? "We have suffered an international outbreak of business and political Crowhursting," says Purves.
Bankers, the financial sector and travel companies have remained relentlessly cheerful, talking up their businesses, refusing to cut their losses and practising a corrosive, "smiley deception".
Over-pessimism is no better -- maintaining a level of confidence among employees and investors may sometimes require a little bluff. But when so much is at stake, even a white lie can open the door to dangerous deception.
So when do you send up the flare? When Chancellor Darling openly aired his concerns about the fragile state of the economy not so long ago, he was lambasted for rattling public confidence. Yet Lehman Brothers' former CEO, Richard Fuld, was among those in the financial sector who failed to raise the alarm soon enough.
It takes judicious balance and the kind of risk management advocated by one BNET reader commenting on Lehman Brothers' fall.
Author James O'Toole would argue that it starts with openness. But transparency is rare and not especially welcomed by leaders used to less-than-honest feedback.
Work may need "principled contrarians", individuals who will ask the awkward questions -- in the Belbin team structure, the "monitor/evaluator" or "shaper. But realists at work too easily become Cassandras. Judging by the comments following Purves's piece, Crowhursting's rife worldwide. Can we really not handle the truth?