Leadership Dishonesty: The New Norm?

Leadership-DishonestyEveryone agrees that leadership dishonesty is wrong and that candor, honesty and transparency are essential to leaders of all organizations. When leaders lie, no one trusts them—not their subordinates, their own bosses, their colleagues, or their customers. You can’t have effective leadership without trust.

Worse, when leaders lie, others do the same. Almost no one can be sure to have accurate information about what is really going on and decisions are faulty. It is impossible to learn from experience and make better choices when there isn’t full disclosure and transparency.

Research shows that people view dishonesty as one of the gravest moral failings. But here’s something worthy of paying attention to:

“Lying is incredibly common in everyday life and rampant among leaders of all sorts of organizations, including some of the most venerated leaders and companies.” ~ Jeffrey Pfeffer, Leadership BS, Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time,  HarperBusiness, September 2015

The quote above is from a truly eye-opening book on all the lies and leadership dishonesty that are common in leadership behaviors—including those perpetuated by the leadership development industry. Here are some pertinent excerpts about dishonesty in leadership behaviors:

  • Because lying produces few to no severe sanctions, lying increases in frequency
  • Because lying is then common, it becomes normative.
  • Because lying becomes common, it isn’t sanctioned, because it makes no sense to try to punish widespread, almost taken-for-granted behavior.

Pfeffer isn’t suggesting that not telling the truth should be tolerated because it is reasonably common. He provides plenty of evidence that leaders face few to no consequences for dishonesty. Which helps us understand why it is so prevalent, and suggests we explore why and how lying might actually be useful and helpful.

Lying As a Leadership Skill

We can’t ignore that it is common because it often works. Nor can we afford to not know how and when lying crosses into the danger zone. What is also dangerous is to deny it goes on. When we believe in leaders as paragons of virtue, always striving to be authentic and trustworthy, we fail in our responsibilities.

People lie to smooth over difficult situations, to make relationships work. We judge other people’s deceptions more harshly than our own. They exaggerate, minimize and omit, tell half-truths and self-edit as a requirement of successful social necessities. It is easy to find reasons for any lie. We lie to achieve promotions and to negotiate contracts.

Leaders also lie to achieve positive results. Lies, told often enough and convincingly enough, can become the truth—a self-fulfilling prophecy. What people say, truthful or not, helps construct a social reality that then becomes real.

To quote Pfeffer on this point:

“This is why I often say that the ability to misrepresent reality is a crucial—maybe the most crucial—leadership skill.” Pfeffer in Leadership BS

I read an awful lot of books on leadership and how leaders can become truly effective. Many of these books are written by academics from top business schools (such as Pfeffer from Stanford) who have conducted research and consulted with companies in the field. Some are written by CEOs with experience in the trenches. I do this to better understand the challenges in the workplaces of today, and to search out answers to some of the problems I deal with as an executive coach.

I ask you, my readers, for your opinion on this. When, if ever, and under what circumstances, is it okay for leaders to lie? I’d love to hear from you. Give me a call, 704-827-4474. Or, you can reach me here and on LinkedIn.

 

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