There is a principle of communication I see violated nearly every day. It is violated largely because of a wrong assumption on the part of leaders and it is one of the costliest mistakes I see. Let me help you avoid it.

The principle I want you to put into practice is one that is best described with words I hesitate to use. They are words first used by Nathan Bedford Forrest, one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan. Obviously, I’m completely opposed to everything the Klan stands for. Yet before Forrest helped start the Klan, he was a brilliant confederate general. Someone once asked him what his philosophy of victory was. He said, “Get there firstest with the mostest.” Now, this might be apocryphal, but the words have been attributed to him for more than a century and a half.

Get there firstest with the mostest. It is as wise a military tactic as it is a communications policy. You see, most communications mistakes are made by not showing up. They are made by leaving a vacuum. No one in leadership provides a narrative that explains events and so people are left to devise stories of their own. What they come up with are rarely close to the truth and usually are inspired by fear and suspicion. It is the fault of the leader, though, for not getting there firstest with the mostest.

So what is that assumption leaders make that does not serve them well? Usually leaders assume that non-leaders think like them. They assume that in the absence of information, people will wait for more information or that they will choose not to fashion a fanciful story to fill the void. It ain’t so. People will fill the information void with something even if it is a story they know not to be true. They seem to feel that it is better to have a fake story than no story at all. So they spin a yarn, usually something outlandish and fear-inspiring. Fear sells, after all. So things get worse and worse.

Why? Because the leader did not show up.

I know a pastor who had to take extended time off from his church because of his wife’s health crisis. He wanted to protect the privacy of the woman he loved so all he told the church was that he “needed some time.” Well, you won’t believe what people started thinking. He had an affair. He was fired. He was getting a divorce. He was dying of a horrible disease. The gossips ruled the day, and all because the pastor violated one of the great truths of communication. Don’t leave a vacuum. Get there the firstest with the mostest.

I know a CEO who kept silent too long about an intended merger. The gossips started saying everyone in the company was about to be fired. Productivity dropped. Relationships were torn. The truth was that everyone was about to get a raise, better benefits, and more interesting work, but the leader just didn’t fill the void. He had to work doubly hard to contain the damage. It was all his fault entirely, he now knows.

Don’t assume people see things as you do. Don’t assume they’ll figure it out when they need to. Don’t leave a void. Get there firstest with the mostest when it comes to the narrative people need. This is Leadership Comm 101.