Construction Leadership Insights

The Jeremiah Factor: How Strong Leaders Embrace Truth-Tellers, and Thrive

Selective focus of businessman holding blueprint near constructor

Twenty-five hundred years ago, there lived a man named Jeremiah.
He was a prophet during a time of crisis for the nation Israel. Israel had long fallen from the peak of its glory. The Israelite kings, priests, prophets, and people were all corrupt. Jeremiah often came to clearly tell them the truth about their wrong decisions and that if they refused to listen to any warnings from him or other prophets, dire consequences would fall upon the nation. Israel lies at the crossroads of three continents: Europe, Asia, and Africa. So Israel was under pressure from Egypt to the south and Babylon to the north, and still they refused to change their ways. Despite the messages of prophets such as Jeremiah, they abandoned their values and continued to live in corruption.

As the leader of a construction companyAs the leader of a construction company, you have a duty and a responsibility to lead your people. A duty to your stakeholders, to employees, to clients, and to project partners. No one can take that duty of leadership away from you, but sometimes you need a second perspective because you can’t always see things clearly. You need support and input. But where will this advice come from? Who will you listen to?

Just like the kings of Israel needed prophets like Jeremiah who would tell them the truth about their situation, you need people who’ll tell you the truth about your company and your leadership.

Let’s consider three questions:

  • Who are your Jeremiahs, and where do you find them?
  • What’s the message of the Jeremiahs in your company?
  • Why are Jeremiahs important?

Who are your Jeremiahs, and where do you find them?
Sometimes they’re internally, like someone inside your company who will tell you the truth no matter what it might cost them. Perhaps you’re in an executive position, and there’s someone you’ve had a professional relationship with for many years within your company who hasn’t risen to the same level of leadership. But they’re still someone who knows you and your company well.  You know that you can sit down with them over a drink at the end of the day and that they’ll tell you the truth about you and your business. He may be an old-school foreman or superintendent in your organization. You know if you pick up the phone and talk to him, he’ll tell you exactly what’s happening with a project. He’ll tell you if the project manager’s clueless, if the customer or client is trying to hose you, if the general contractor is being fair or not, or if the subcontractors are being lazy. That person has a clear perspective and will tell you the truth because they understand your business and care about it.

Jeremiahs who are found internally have parked their ego. They’re not there for career positioning or so that they can be preeminent in your organization. They want your company to win projects and build projects in an excellent manner. They’re not just about collecting a salary, but they’re the people who put your company’s best interests at the forefront when they give you feedback. Their mission is to tell you the truth and to live with integrity to the best of their ability.

They’re committed to you, and you’re committed to them.
An “external” Jeremiah could be someone you’ve known for 5-15 years whom you’ve built many projects for. When mistakes happen on a project, they don’t varnish it, but they pick up the phone or meet with you in person to tell you what’s going on. It might be a subcontractor or a general contractor, someone that you have a deep relationship with whom you trust. It could even be an adviser, your CPA, your banker, someone who provides your bonds. It could be a business coach or an executive adviser. A key quality about any Jeremiah is that they understand you and the culture of your company. They know how the company shows up on its best days. They care about the company, and they care about you.

Jeremiahs might be the contrarians.
They don’t just put a shiny, happy face on everything that happens in your company. They’re the ones who stand up and say, “No, this isn’t right. We need to fix this.” They’re willing to call the timeout, point out the problems, and demand they be resolved. Sometimes Jeremiahs seem like a burr in your saddle. When they walk in your office, you know they have something to tell you that you might not like, and they’ll clearly state it. But in the back of your mind, you realize you need to hear it. It’s important that you’re willing to listen to that contrarian perspective in your organization so that you can grasp the truth about your company.

Sometimes these Jeremiahs are oddly packaged.
They’re not always smooth, polished, and sophisticated people. They’re direct and usually correct. In the Old Testament, many of the prophets were badly dressed. They weren’t exactly hip and cool leaders, so to speak. Because of their outward appearance and the nature and delivery of their message, people would reject what they had to say. Sometimes the Jeremiahs in your company might be like that too. You should look for Jeremiahs who know and care about your company even if they might not be well-dressed or if they come off as a little harsh. If they care and they’re people who see clearly and will tell you the truth, listen.

What’s the message of these Jeremiahs?
It’s the truth. They’re going to come to you with a clear perspective of how they see the organization. They will communicate three aspects of truth.

  • The truth about people
  • The truth about the processes in your company and how well they’re working
  • The truth about the effectiveness of the projects you’re building

If you’ve clearly identified the values and purpose of your businessThe truth on a deeper level
Those messages won’t always be things you want to hear, but you must listen to them to understand what’s really happening in your business. If you’ve clearly identified the values and purpose of your business, Jeremiahs will communicate to you when those values and that purpose are not being lived out. For instance, maybe you value taking care of your clients. A Jeremiah will let you know when your clients are being neglected. It’s because that Jeremiah cares about your company and your company’s reputation.

They understand how your culture works and their position within the organization.
They don’t just say, “Hey, there’s a problem,” because finding problems in life isn’t a big challenge. It’s not difficult to find problems. It’s helpful to identify the problems and tell the truth about it, but even more so to have a solution. Jeremiahs come with ideas and insights regarding what you can do to overcome issues. They offer suggestions on how to change the situation they bring to your attention. Those are the kinds of Jeremiahs that you’re looking for in your company.

Why are Jeremiah’s important?
Sometimes you don’t see the whole picture. You might need an extra perspective. If you run a business, you know those challenging times when perhaps you’ve slept in your office or you’ve felt the weight of a project going south or you’ve experienced a personnel issue that’s complex and difficult to overcome.

You’re very busy and burdened with many responsibilities.
You see those responsibilities from your perspective. But it is only one perspective. You’re only one person. That’s one of the deep challenges about being a leader. The role has a certain isolation to it. Sometimes you can get consumed in your own view about your business and that might hinder you from identifying how to overcome some of the challenges you’re facing.

It’s easy to allow yourself to be deceived about what’s happening in your organization. Sometimes you’ve convinced yourself that you’re absolutely right about a situation, and then as circumstances unfolded, you realize that, in fact, you were wrong.

What problems are you ignoring in your business?
What problems are you hoping will fix themselves? Problems on a project rarely fix themselves. Whether they’re pride problems about safety or quality or a problem concerning production, they must be addressed to be resolved. But you’re busy and have one perspective. Maybe you have the wrong perspective and don’t see the problem or don’t know how to address it. Or perhaps you’re ignoring the problem. You need someone who’ll tell you the truth.

There’ll be plenty of people around you who are looking for a place of security.
They’re willing to blow smoke your way so that you can feel good about yourself. You might’ve convinced yourself that you won’t let those kinds of people associate with you, but don’t be deceived. People in authority, we like to be told that we’re doing well. It’s easy to listen to the soothing words of people who prop us up but won’t tell us the hard truths we need to hear. It’s so important to have those Jeremiahs who can interrupt your busyness and provide some clarity. They’re not going to blow smoke, but they will tell you the truth. They’re not there to make you feel good. They’re there to help you succeed.

Maybe you think you know what you’re doing and that you don’t need outside voices.
Maybe you’ve built your business or career by yourself, so you think it’s all on your shoulders. Consider that classic movie, Downfall, a German movie. It’s about the last days of Hitler. One of the scenes depicts Hitler in his bunker as the Russians are closing in. His generals try to tell him the truth about the military situation that he’s facing. But he’s completely delusional about what’s going on. Now, I’m not saying that you’re Hitler. I’m saying, listen to your generals.

It’s so easy to miss what’s really happening in our organizations even when the walls might be caving in. The issues might be greater than we realize. We need someone like Jeremiah who’s willing to tell us the truth.

How do you respond to the Jeremiahs in your company?
Unfortunately, the kingdom of Israel refused to listen to Jeremiah. They paid the price for their stubbornness. But Jeremiah didn’t have a life that was all roses and ease either. The Israelites didn’t like him telling them the truth, so they imprisoned him. Then Jeremiah would send them scrolls containing a message from God. They burned the scrolls and conspired to kill Jeremiah. He was actually captured and carried into Egypt where he died, away from his homeland.

You can kill the messengerPeople in leadership often reject their Jeremiahs.
We don’t usually burn books, send people to prison, or kill anyone. But we delete emails. We reassign people to positions where they can’t bug us anymore. Or we just let people go. Once you remove the Jeremiahs from your organization, the truth doesn’t go away. You can kill the messenger, but you can’t kill the truth. If you don’t address the truth and fix the problems, the problems will only grow. You need to protect the Jeremiahs in your organization. Be willing to endure the pain of the truth they’re telling you despite their, unorthodox approach. Forget the package of the messenger and listen to the message. Don’t judge the outward appearance. Don’t allow your fear or your pride to cause you to ignore what they’re saying.

Find your Jeremiahs.
If you don’t have one within your company, look for one on the outside. It could be your CPA or an executive adviser. It could be even a legal adviser. It’s someone who understands and appreciates your company, who has the best interests of your company in mind, and who will tell you the truth about how things are. You, as a leader, often are in a lonely position. You need to hear what people have to say and then respond to those things appropriately.

This post is adapted from Construction Genius Ep. 48 The Jeremiah Factor How Strong Leaders Embrace Truth-Tellers, and Thrive

Click the link to listen to the episode, and subscribe to Construction Genius wherever you get your podcasts.

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