Honesty Is Such Lonely Word

September 16, 2010 6 min read

My internship at the American Embassy

One summer when I was in college, I got a summer internship as the Assistant Systems Manager at the American Embassy in Tokyo. They had a Systems Manager, Mr. Itoh, but he really only spoke Japanese. And since some of the most important people in the Embassy were Americans who didn’t speak Japanese, they needed someone to teach them how to use the new computer system. That became my summer job. I learned from Mr. Itoh how the computer worked and then I had individual and group training sessions with the staff who couldn’t speak Japanese.

This was a very long time ago and it was an early Wang computer system that we worked with. These days it would be unthinkable to turn the server on and off every day. But then, it was normal to backup the computer and turn it off at the end of the workday and turn it back on the next morning. Since there were just two of us in the computer section, we split of the tasks of running and maintaining the computer functions as well. So in addition to the training, I had the job of starting up the computer system every morning. So at night Mr. Itoh would turn off the system and then I’d come in about 6 AM the next day and turn it back on. Sometimes if there was work being done overnight, I’d find the system already on in the morning when I arrived. I always liked that because it meant less work for me.

One morning in early September, I arrived to find the computer system on and when I looked at the logs, it appeared there was quite a lot of activity particularly in the translation section. This was back in the days when all the computer programs were stored centrally on the server and each workstation just tapped into the mainframe computer; the workstation was nothing more than a screen and a keyboard; all the computing power was in the mainframe computer. So from the central computer terminal, I could see exactly who was accessing which programs and which workstations were active. Seeing all the activity in the translation section, I figured they had some big report they were trying to meet a deadline on. Then, that incident occurred.

The dilemma

This is what happened. About 7 o’clock AM a call came in from a secretary in the Agriculture section who always arrived early and played a game on the computer. The problem was there was a bug in the game software and her workstation would freeze up. So, she would always call to ask me to reset her workstation. I did it all the time for her. If I highlighted her workstation on my Master terminal and touched the F7 key, her workstation would reboot itself. So I did what I did almost every morning and hit the F7 key. But then my workstation suddenly went black, and the entire system started to reboot. I realized that I hit the F8 key instead of the F7 — unfortunately, the F8 key rebooted all the workstations on the system instead of just rebooting hers.

I was just glad it was so early in the morning before everyone arrived to work. But then I heard a flurry of activity in the hallway. First Itoh-san ran into the room and asked what happened. I’d never seen Itoh-san in the office before 9 AM. Ever. I explained my mistake and he looked really worried. Without saying anything, he ran out of the room and down the hall. Next, the top administrative guy in the embassy, Mr. Johnson, poked his head in and asked where Itoh-san was. I pointed down the hall. He ran too.

Now I was worried. As the computers were coming back online again, I could see that more than 100 workstations were in use on the system. This was not a normal morning. After about 10 minutes, Mr. Johnson came back into the computer room looking really bothered. He sat down in Itoh-san’s chair — which he never did — and told me that he’d just had to fire Mr. Itoh and tomorrow would be Itoh-san’s last day. He went on to explain that the night before a straying Korean Airline, Flight 007 — a 747 passenger jet — was shot down by the Soviet Union. All of the information was in Japanese so the translation section had been busy all night. These were still the early days of computers and there was no automatic save function. So when the system was turned off, hundreds of hours of translation were wiped out. Johnson went on to tell me that Mr. Itoh had admitted to pressing the wrong button and there was nothing Johnson could do but fire him.

Without even thinking I blurted out “Well Itoh-san didn’t reset the system. I did. You can’t fire him.” Johnson shot back immediately. “Why would he admit to a mistake when he didn’t do it?” All I could say was: “maybe because he’s Japanese?”

In the days following the incident, President Reagan was criticized for his delayed announcement of the Korean Airline incident. In fact, without the translations from the embassy, the first government announcements were that the KAL jet had not been destroyed and had landed safely in Siberia. That was simply not true, but the mistake has led to years of conspiracy theory speculation about the passengers being held somewhere in Russia.

In the end, Itoh-san was not fired. He had done nothing wrong.

But, naturally, that day was my last day of work at the American Embassy. But, not because I was fired; although, I might have been fired if that day didn’t just happen to be the last scheduled day of my summer internship. The next day, I packed up my bags and headed off to graduate school.

But I learned an important lesson about truth that day. Telling the truth, perhaps, forever marred my ability to get a job in the State Department or with the American Embassy again. But if I hadn’t told the truth, Itoh-san would have destroyed his own career to nobly protect a subordinate. I just couldn’t allow him to do that.

Can a leader really be honest?

Later in my career, I’ve seen many leaders dodge the truth many times. Often they create organizations that make it almost impossible to hear the honest truth about their environments by surrounding themselves with yes-men. And that makes it tough to deliver bad news. People regularly get fired for being the purveyors of bad news. So you see companies spin information all the time to make something that really was a failure look like something positive. Much of the heartache of the current financial crisis could have been avoided if bank executives would have been honest about the amount and associated risks of the loans they were making. But no one told the truth, and we ended up where we are today. My father was a scientist and a professor. He did many wonderful things during his life. But I was never so proud of him as the day that a co-worker of his — another professor — came up to me and said, “Your father is the most honest person I know.” I vowed that day that I’d try to be like him. I don’t think I’ve been as successful at it as he was. But every day, I try.

Moral: If you’re honest, your path in life may not be a direct, straight-line to the top. As a matter of fact, it probably won’t be. But you’ll have the respect of many people around you. And when it comes time to lead, you’ll have followers who will do anything for you because they know that you’ll never lead them astray with lies. It is a rare characteristic for any leader to have a knack for absolute honesty — if you can cultivate an unswerving ability to tell the truth, you’re on your way to being a truly great leader. And more importantly, you’ll be a truly great person.