“Straight from the horse’s mouth” is an expression commonly used to imply that supplied information is credible, trustworthy and reliable. It is, in other words, considered to be the truth. In essence, this means that the information was obtained first-hand, directly from the source or origin. Many have said that there are two possible origins of the phrase – the first being potentially the more credible of the two. Firstly, the age of a horse, apparently, can be determined quite easily by examining its teeth. Although never trying this myself, those that are in the know are able to do this. So, if you were going to be buying a horse and needed to confirm the age, you would open its mouth, stick your head inside and check the teeth. It would thus not be necessary to rely on a third party’s opinion as your information would be correct and “straight from the horse’s mouth”. The second possible origin relates to horse racing and specifically betting on races. If you were looking for a sure bet, you would definitely make certain that you ran into “somebody in the know” who would be able to give you that “golden tip”. If questioned as to the source of the information, the answer from the tipster would most probably be “straight from the horse’s mouth” and no further information would be necessary. As a horse cannot speak, this confuses the metaphor somewhat, so some interpret this to mean coming from a source that is as close to the horse as possible (like a stable employee or a jockey that has inside information not available to others). The point of the expression, whatever its origin, is that the information received is credible, reliable and trustworthy.
One of the greatest battles in business today is for leaders to win the trust of all stakeholders. The leaders who win this battle are those who communicate transparently, frequently and with a consistent message. In a world where trust has been eroded (fake news, corporate and government greed and fraud, lies and deception, etc.), there is a demand from investors, employees, customers, governments and regulators for greater corporate accountability and transparency. Leaders all too often talk about having trust, rather than building trust and thus missing the opportunities that a trust environment offers the business/government.
Jodi Macpherson, a communications expert at Mercer Inc., notes: “Communication is fundamental to building trust. It contributes to the creation of an environment of trust around leaders that enables them to lead effectively, engage employees and ultimately deliver results”. Communication serves as the positioning agent for message delivery and leadership development for senior management. Successful business leaders have learnt this from first-hand experience. Bill Black, former President and CEO of Maritime Life, emphasised: “A very substantial part of your accountability as a CEO is to communicate with stakeholders such as employees and customers. People want the CEO to communicate the strategic issues – the ‘big picture’ questions. For things happening at the corporate level, they want to hear it from the top”. Ralph Beslin and Chitra Reddin, writing for Ivey Business Journal, wisely noted: “Communication can’t make a person trust someone who is basically untrustworthy, but it can help create a culture in which trust can thrive”.
So, why is trust so important for the CEO? Why should a CEO care about building trust through authentic communication? Diane Bean, executive vice-president: human resources and communication for Manulife Insurance, Canada’s largest insurance company, says: “Leaders are people who are followed. People won’t follow a leader who they don’t trust. Trust makes it easier to get alignment”. Beslin and Reddin continue her thought and note: “Trust is a powerful force that builds loyalty, increases credibility and supports effective communications. It gives you the benefit of the doubt in situations where you want to be heard, understood and believed”.
Today, where public confidence in corporate and government leadership is at an all-time low, leadership, communications, trust, corporate/government performance and reputation are inextricably linked. A 2003 Towers Perrin study, “Enhancing Corporate Credibility: Is It Time to Take the SPIN Out of Employee Communications?” (based on input from 1,000 working North Americans), concludes: “Company communications about the business – e.g., the company’s strategy, performance and competitive challenges – are viewed as credible by less than half of employees, and appear dishonest to roughly a quarter of the workforce.” These are frightening results and should “prick the conscience” of senior executives.
“Straight from the horse’s mouth”, as a maxim for those in leadership in business and government, implies not just an ongoing direct communication from the source, but more importantly, messages of credibility, reliability and trustworthiness.