Tech Leader Pro podcast 12, On determining fact from fiction

Published on 2022-01-15 by John Collins. Socials: YouTube - X - Spotify - Amazon Music - Apple Podcast



There is a saying in England that I cannot find a source for, but goes something like this:

"Wherever the Queen visits, it smells like wet paint."

The point being that a visit from the Queen is such a big occasion, that everyone works hard to make the best possible impression in advance of her visit, including giving all of the walls a fresh coat of paint.

It is a really good expression that can also be applied to any leader: if everyone is striving to give you the best possible impression of things, how do you see things for how they actually are?

A leader needs to learn to spot the subtle clues, the body language, the tells, anything that will allow them to see through the BS that is being presented to them. As a leader, I want to receive the facts, no matter how brutal. As I leader, I also know that people often embellish with their own opinions, or deliberately obfuscate when they want to hide some bad news.

So how do you, as a leader, tell them apart? That will be the topic for today’s podcast.

Seeing through the BS

I tend to group reportees into three categories:

  1. Those that report only good news and successes, these are the "wet paint" guys. Even when they mean well, they are obfuscating facts and as such are a nuisance.
  2. Those that report only the problems and obstacles, these guys usually need to be guided to a solution. Sometimes they are junior team members, sometimes they are senior and in need of cultural re-adjustment in terms of what is expected from them.
  3. Those that report just the facts. These are your concise communicators, the "straight talkers" of your team. Personally, I love these guys, and so should you: they hate BS just as much as you do.

A leader needs to encourage category 3 types in the team: just give me the facts, as clearly and concisely as possible. Options and opinions are also of course welcomed, but start with the facts, otherwise I am going to have to parse these myself and that takes time and effort, and more importantly I might miss something or otherwise get it wrong.

A leader is not omniscient, instead they are trusting the team to be their eyes and ears across multiple topics.

Getting to the facts is effectively cutting through the BS. Human beings are not robots, so will typically colour facts with their own interpretations and opinions so it is important for a leader to be able to tell them apart.

Building a culture to encourage honesty

If a reportee is continually reporting fiction rather than fact, the leader should ask themselves why that person feels compelled to do so?

Perhaps they want to make themselves look good, perhaps they want to make a rival look bad, or perhaps they are simply afraid to report the facts in case there are any implications for them.

As a leader, you need to ensure that your teams feel confident in presenting the honest facts in a judgement-free environment, and it is your job to set that example.

Facts can be judged and reviewed, but not the messenger. If a leader makes the mistake of taking punitive measures against a messenger, or rewarding those who always report success, then they will simply encourage people to tell them what they want to hear, resulting in a massive blind spot.

That is a terrible mistake for a leader to make, but it does happen, I have seen it with my own eyes and the whole team suffers as a result.

Beware of wet paint smells. To a leader, wet paint actually smells like BS, and should act as a major red flag.

The dark art of obfuscation

There are many forms of obfuscation from reportees, some are more obvious than others. Let’s start by looking at some of the obvious examples:

That is the amateur-hour stuff, but once you get to pro-level obfuscation your judgement as a leader will really be put to the test! Here are some examples of ninja-level obfuscation:

All of these techniques, and more, add to the "fog of war" of leadership, and a leader needs to be able to see a path through that fog to lead the team through it.

A healthy team has none of these behaviours, and unhealthy team has all of them and is deeply political.

Now, you can see why the type 3 "straight talkers" are so important to your team, and your mental health, and you should surround yourself with these guys and promote them to senior roles.

Concise, direct, communication is the end goal for everyone.

Clear information drives clear decisions

Without clear information, you cannot make clear decisions. You might miss some important fact that was hidden from you, because your team were too busy covering everything in brilliant white paint for you. Unless you are royalty, that is not only unnecessary but it is downright dangerous.

Beware of wet paint smells.


Lets recap what we have covered today:

  1. There is a saying in England that goes something like this: “Wherever the Queen visits, it smells like wet paint.”
  2. As a leader however, you need to be able to see the World for what it is, especially how it impacts on your team and their projects
  3. You want to see the facts, not the fiction, not matter how brutal it is.
  4. In general there are three types of reportees you will encounter:
    1. Those that report only good news and successes, these are the "wet paint" guys.
    2. Those that report only the problems and obstacles, these guys usually need to be guided to a solution.
    3. Those that report just the facts, the “straight talkers”.
  5. The “wet paint” guys will use a mixture of simple and advanced obfuscation techniques to try to blow fog in your eyes: as a leader you need to be able to spot these tricks, even the subtle ones, and stamp out this behaviour in your team culture.
  6. You need to reassure the team that presenting the honest facts will be received in a non-judgemental way.
  7. The “straight talkers” will help you run the team, and are natural candidates for leadership roles within it. Promote and retain.
  8. Concise, direct, communication is the end goal for everyone. Lead by example in your own communication.
  9. Without clear information, you cannot make clear decisions.

I hope you enjoyed this episode, and I look forward to covering the next topic in this series with you! In the interim if you want to follow me online, you can find my blog at, or follow me on Twitter @TechLeaderPro.

Thanks for your time, take care and have a great week!


[1] : My original blog post on this topic (2017):


File details: 15.6 MB MP3, 10 mins 49 secs duration.

Title music is "Still Cold" by Crystal Shards, licensed via


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