A lot of leaders are full of bull. At least, that's what some of their followers think.
This past year, I've heard doubts about the integrity of President Barack Obama, the Democrats and Republicans in Congress, a local county executive, several partners in client firms and numerous business leaders. These misgivings have been expressed by constituents, firm partners, employees and a few second-generation children in family businesses, talking about one or both parents.
Do leaders lie to protect their status as often as it appears?
For answers, I looked in two directions, outside myself and my species, to examine lying in nature, and inside myself, to examine my own integrity offenses. The sobering results might surprise you.
Deception in nature
It turns out that humans did not invent lying. The deception found throughout nature includes spiders giving worthless nuptial gifts to potential mates; rabbits, birds and bugs using color camouflage to deceive predators; weaker mantis shrimp bluffing bravery to secure prime protection cavities; and monkeys tricking other monkeys to gain friendship, food and reproduction privileges.
Wildlife biologists have produced widespread documentation of cheating, lying and back-biting in the natural world. In "The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life," Harvard-educated evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers, now an eminent professor at Rutgers University, has written extensively about the adaptive importance of deception in nature.
If you're a bird, bug or mammal, flying, crawling or foraging in the wild, your cunning and deceiving skills can keep you from getting eaten. Clearly, deception plays some part in survival.
But what about my own frequency of deceit?
For the longest time, I fooled myself into thinking I was an honest person who rarely, if ever, told a lie. That delusion was exposed by a recent, gut-churning experiment: I decided to write down every instance I could retrieve when I had lied to protect myself or to look good.
I was stunned, not only by the many ways I engage in dishonesty but at having believed for so many years the big lie that I hardly ever lie.
Here are some examples of lies revealed in my self-examination:
- Thinking I know when I don't know-for example, impulsively answering a question simply because I am asked, only to later discover that I didn't know what I was talking about.
- Presenting my own personal beliefs as true or right instead of qualifying my convictions with provisional statements such as "This might not be the whole picture, but it's what I believe at the present time."
- Telling silly, clairvoyant lies to others about themselves, such as, "You're going to be sorry if you do this," or "If you take off some weight and get some rest, you'll be a lot less depressed."
- Trying to appear different from what I am-for example, choosing to wear less comfortable clothes in order to look thinner, or using accurate but fancy words to sound impressive when shorter, simpler language could easily be employed.
- Subscribing to single-cause explanations for problems, diseases or dilemmas-for example, thinking diabetics simply live more sedentary lives, or believing that "if only" one member of a management team would shape up, the whole team would function better. (Coming up with a simplistic answer feeds my delusion that I have the situation well-understood and in control).
- Thinking I can do more than is possible-for example, overpromising, or fancying myself as "the rescuer' who can swoop in and make everything better.
- Trying to gain approval or appear stronger than I am-for example, saying I'm doing well when I'm not doing well, or agreeing with another person just to gain favor when I know I don't agree.
- Dishonestly complimenting others-for example, saying, "You look great" when that doesn't reflect my real opinion.
- Apologizing insincerely in two ways: saying, "I'm sorry," when I don't believe I am culpable (including stooping to that pathetically overused phrase, "I'm sorry you feel that way") and refusing to apologize when I clearly own responsibility, which is lying by omission.
Is anyone perfectly honest?
That lying is rampant in nature and prolific in my own functioning raises the possibility that deception is normal human activity. Is anyone perfectly honest?
Even the most heralded truth-tellers have their integrity lapses. Few would criticize "Honest Abe" Lincoln for bullying through Congress the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery. Yet his tactics eerily resemble Obama's strategy for passing his similarly controversial health care bill: exaggerated claims, political arm-twisting, and yes, outright lies. (Many historians assert that Lincoln fibbed in the midst of his fight for the 13th Amendment when he sent a letter denying any knowledge of the peace delegation from Richmond, even though he had recently met with that delegation).
What are parents and business leaders to make of this? Is lying simply part of our nature, or is it something that causes damage in our families, businesses and government? Yes and yes.
It's likely factual that all leaders lie and that most lie consistently and unconsciously. Because leaders tend to possess more resources and better access to power than others, when leaders lie, the negative consequences to the group can intensify. That's why it's important for leaders to look at the integrity realities of their behavior, rather than hiding in lofty ideals.
A starting point for integrity
Leaders wishing to examine their character might consider starting with a noble admission: "I am capable of and practiced in the art of unconscious deceit and, at the very least, vulnerable to conscious deceit."
This admission is important because it fuels greater vigilance about honesty.
Acknowledging lack of complete honesty prepares a leader to identify concrete instances of deceit. "Where, specifically, am I lying to protect myself, and what are the harmful consequences?" I have come to believe that this kind of wrestling with integrity is more honest than assuming perfection.
Most of us would prefer a leader who struggles with genuineness over a leader who appears squeaky clean. We're shamefully shortsighted when we assume our kids require perfect parents or when we imagine that employees will respect leaders only if they are above reproach.
Those utopian expectations are sure to backfire, pressuring leaders to look and talk as if they are completely honest. That's deceptive.
The biggest lie we will tell ourselves is the lie that we seldom lie.
John Engels is the founder of the Advanced Leadership Course and president of Leadership Coaching Inc., a Rochester executive development firm. He can be reached at John@LeadershipCoachingInc.com.
12/6/13 (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email email@example.com.