Updated: Aug 11, 2021
For almost three decades, I’ve studied leadership by observing both leaders and would-be leaders from near and afar—hundreds… maybe thousands of individuals in leadership roles. I’ve read countless books on the topic of leadership and what makes good leaders. I’ve participated in hundreds of conversations on the subject of good leadership. I’ve been in executive level roles for over 15 years, myself, learning and gaining appreciation for the pressures of leadership, firsthand.
From my studies, observations, and experience, I’ve come to the conclusion that the single most important trait that separates the truly effective leaders from their less successful counterparts is personal integrity—the commitment to open and honest interactions in all aspects of one's life.
I believe that trust is critical for any win-win relationship, and the absence of trust is an insurmountable obstacle for effective leadership, as it brings the possible friction of doubt, apprehension, skepticism, and potential animosity into key interactions. I believe true leaders must have the best interest of their people in every decision they make, and their people in return must believe that their leader truly seeks the best for them. Not only does dishonesty show a lack of respect for others, but it is fundamentally a selfish trait. When leaders lie, they do it at the expense of others, attempting to advance their own selfish motives. Yet ironically, it always seems to come back to hurt them. Dishonesty ultimately undermines a person’s ability to be trusted.
What Kind of Leadership Examples Have You Experienced?
Think about those you’ve known in leadership positions throughout your career. Were they willing to lie or misrepresent reality? Were they willing to “spin” a rosy picture for investors (or potential investors) when the reality was quite a bit more stark? Were they willing to present lies or misrepresentations to employees to try to boost morale? Were they willing to endorse sales and marketing messages that over-inflated what the product could do or what results could be attained? Were they willing to say what they thought people wanted to hear, rather than what was supported by facts and reality? Did they dodge difficult questions and allow inconvenient truths to be kept under cover? Did they deflect criticism and change the subject in an attempt to hide a fault? Did they come across as though they had something to hide?
Or have you had the privilege to work with the rare leaders who were willing to be open and honest about any situation, who were NOT willing to lie or misrepresent a situation, who did NOT feel the need to “hold their cards close to the vest,” who were determined to operate only in truth and candidness, who did not exaggerate performance or capabilities, who were willing to own up to the reality of any situation, who were willing to “call a spade a spade,” who visibly accepted responsibility for less-than-ideal outcomes, and who were willing to say they didn’t know when they actually didn’t know?
If so, you have been very fortunate.
My experience is that would-be leaders typically fall somewhere between the two extremes. But those with impeccable honesty and integrity, while rare, have been the best people to work for and typically achieved much better results from the teams that worked for them.
Do Executives Have to Lie to Succeed in Their Jobs?
Sadly, I have heard many executives actually admit (in not so many words) that it is more important to say what is believable or what is socially acceptable than to be completely open and honest in conversations with important business stakeholders, which would include employees, investors, and even customers. I’ve had leaders who provided me carefully scripted answers and threatened me not to deviate from the “script,” even though the script did not paint an accurate picture of reality. I’ve had bosses who would take extra time to try to convince me of an alternate reality prior to a big meeting, where I would be called on to answer questions. I've had multiple C-Level leaders pressure me to lie or misrepresent the true reality of the situation.
I’ve seen numerous executives with questionable values when it came to honesty and integrity. And I have seen those executives put those values on display in their communications in customer meetings, earnings calls, board meetings, and messages to employees. As one might expect, those breaches in trust and integrity caused me to lose respect for these individuals as leaders, and worse, they caused me to lose respect for myself every time I let those things happen without setting the record straight.
While there are definitely examples of honest leaders with impeccable integrity, some of which I’ve had the good fortune to work with, it appears that the majority of today’s top executives have developed a willingness to stretch the truth or outright lie when the situation seems to require it. Too many would-be leaders believe it necessary to paint a specific type of picture, whether in communications to employees, investors, customers, or board members, based on a message they felt needed to be delivered, reality be damned, rather than the message that represented the unvarnished truth. In most cases, it seems these executives see the ability to spin an acceptable story to be a critical skill that also happens to be a “necessary evil” of the job, not a problem needing to be corrected.
I have never accepted this, and I believe this practice of selective honesty undercuts one’s ability to successfully lead and influence others.
Why does this happen?
Albert Carr, an economist and journeyman consultant famous in the 1960s, explained why he believed dishonestly was necessary to succeed in an executive role, as follows:
Most executives from time to time are almost compelled, in the interests of their companies or themselves, to practice some form of deception when negotiating with customers, dealers, labor unions, government officials, or even other departments of their companies. By conscious misstatements, concealment of pertinent facts, or exaggeration—in short, by bluffing—they seek to persuade others to agree with them. I think it is fair to say that if the individual executive refuses to bluff from time to time—if he feels obligated to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth—he is ignoring opportunities permitted under the rules and is at a heavy disadvantage in his business dealings…
It seems clear that there are many senior leaders and executives that would agree with him, although there is no evidence that dishonesty and deception are contained only to adversarial negotiations. Instead, we are more likely to find that someone willing to lie in a negotiation is also willing to lie in other business dealings. I think the absurdity of his angle is more evident in his poker playing analogy below, as business and especially leadership is much more complex than a simple game of bluffing:
Poker’s own brand of ethics is different from the ethical ideals of civilized human relationships. The game calls for distrust of the other fellow. It ignores the claim of friendship. Cunning deception and concealment of one’s strength and intentions, not kindness and openheartedness, are vital in poker. No one thinks any the worse of poker on that account. And no one should think any the worse of the game of business because its standards of right and wrong differ from the prevailing traditions of morality in our society. (https://review.chicagobooth.edu/strategy/2020/article/lying-part-business)
But this assertion that lying is just part of the game and not ethically wrong seems woefully near-sighted, as it ignores the many non-combative relationships that depend on trust in order for businesses to thrive, such as relationships with employees, co-workers, partners, distributors, board members, investors, and even customers. To me, Carr’s assertion seems more like an attempted rationalization for bad behavior than a valid explanation of how relationships in business should ideally work.
I do not accept this, and you shouldn’t either.
The Consequences of Dishonesty Undercut Leadership Ability
Here’s the problem. When co-workers see a leader behave dishonestly, whether it be to a customer or any other stakeholder, there are inevitable domino effects that can result:
Employees now see that business leader is entirely capable of lying and willing to do so under the "right" circumstances.
Employees are now less able to trust the business leader who has shown a willingness to deceive.
Employees are led to believe that their leader believes lying and other forms of deception are acceptable character traits, likely to be found in the other leaders that this business executive has hired, and so employees now expect that other business leaders also lack trustworthiness.
Employees may form the impression that the business leader expects employees to also behave dishonestly in their own communications with key business stakeholders, which can compromise their own personal ethics and lead to elevated anxiety and cognitive dissonance.
The realization that executive leaders are willing to deceive causes employees to question the validity of the company’s mission, achievements, strategies, and long-term sustainability. After all, where did all those expectations originate in the first place? Is it all just a house of cards ready to collapse?
Employees start to wonder what else they have been led to believe about their own career and future with the company, and whether it is also based on a fabrication.
Employees begin to second-guess what they are told, not just by the CEO, but by all leadership under that CEO’s management. This makes work and progress slow down and even stall in some instances.
Stephen M. R. Covey, in his book The Speed of Trust, suggests that the absence of trust can tax an organization’s productivity by 20-80% because of the friction is causes. Conversely, and organization who values trust and makes it a world class competency receives a productivity multiplier of 20-40%, due to improvements in collaboration, communication, alignment, engagement, confidence, innovation, and loyalty.
When would-be leaders show a willingness to deceive, a “Low-Trust Culture” is inevitable. When trust is degraded, employees lose faith in management. People become anxious and apprehensive. Engagement falls. People become more defensive and protective of their own information. Communication becomes much more guarded. Managers increasingly feel the need to micromanage. The atmosphere becomes more political, sometimes with divisive “camps” and “alliances” forming. Mistakes are remembered and used as potential weapons in future confrontations. Morale declines due to increasing worry and suspicion. Real issues are no longer surfaced and dealt with effectively. Interactions become more energy-draining and joyless. Layers are added to bureaucracies and redundant systems, leading to even more friction and reduced quality and speed of results.
Leaders are not trusted. The would-be leader’s ability to paint a believable vision and provide constructive coaching is completely undercut. When you consider the main objectives of any organizational leader, the power to accomplish real leadership is largely nullified without integrity and trust. Instead, the would-be leader’s co-workers are left with doubt, uncertainty, apprehension, lack of alignment, and reticence to engage.
And all of this can be the result of little lies and deceptions that eat away at trust over time. Leaders can be honest 97% of the time, but the other 3% can kill a culture. The problem isn’t only with leaders who lie all the time. The problem is when the leader is believed to be capable and willing to lie only some of the time, when they feel the circumstances demand it. It is a problem because nobody knows when those circumstances are present, and therefore, lying time could be any time.
But Everybody Lies, Right?
It is true that studies show that nearly everyone tells lies on a daily basis. In his famous 1975 paper entitled “Everybody Has to Lie,” Harvey Sacks concluded that not only does everyone lie daily, but that the “little white lies” we tell in our daily greetings, e.g., “How are you today?” may actually be the glue that holds relationships together. After all, most casual interactions would not be improved by recounting depressing truths about the traffic, one’s latest health crisis, or frustrations at work, so we're content to just say “fine.” There is not much to be gained by revealing the truth about whether a dress makes a friend “look fat.” Sometimes these “little white lies” are not only regarded as necessary, but sometimes even “virtuous.” (http://theconversation.com)
Various studies have shown that the average person lies 7 to 20 times a day, and in conversations with strangers, the average person will tell 2-3 lies in the first 10 minutes. (http://Talmudology.com/JeremyBrown/). Yes. It's true. Everybody lies. Even you.
And so, if everyone lies, one might logically ask: “How can we possibly hold our leaders or ourselves to a standard of 100% truthful communication if we live in a world where everyone lies?”
All Lies Are Not the Same
It is probably true that we all tell lies. But if we think about it, most of us will agree that there are different categories of lies with different levels of ethical gravity. And while we may all tell lies, that doesn’t necessarily mean we all are willing to deceive for gain.
Little White Lies
Most of the “little white lies” that most of us tell on a daily basis, it can be argued, are told for mutual benefit of those in the conversation. At the very least, most would concede that the one being lied to is no worse off from having been told the little white lie, as it is not an example of someone taking advantage of another through deception. Most of the time, these innocent falsities are not enough to ruin a culture of trust, and they typically won’t sink a person’s ability to be an effective leader—as long as it does not become so prevalent that one gets the reputation of being a chronic “bullshitter,” who is always “blowing smoke” to try to get on the “good side” of everyone they know.
The real problems occur when people show a willingness to deceive for selfish purposes—to gain, through deception, an advantage over another.
Dark Lies to Defraud or Take Advantage of Another
Intentionally trying to make someone believe something different than the truth for the purpose of gaining an advantage over that person is a "dark lie," and it is clearly an ethical violation of a much greater magnitude. Misrepresenting the reality of a company to investors is a way to defraud them based on their willingness to trust you. Misrepresenting what a product or solution can do is a way to defraud customers from attaining a cheaper or more valuable solution alternative. Misrepresenting the truth to employees can rob them of a potentially better career, a higher salary, or pathway to an otherwise brighter future, perhaps with another company.
This kind of lying—the kind that hurts those who have a reason to believe what you say—is just like stealing. It’s the literal definition of fraud—winning under false pretense: intentional deception to induce an unjust gain from another. It’s a trade where your trading partner is getting something less than you represented. It’s intentionally setting a false expectation or allowing a false expectation to persist without correction.
Deception without Technically Lying
I’ve seen many executives and leaders of dishonest character practice the art of deception, while being very careful to avoid the out right lie. Perhaps they skillfully paint a picture using words like, “Imagine a solution that will take your data and automatically generate offers that win new customers,” implying that this is what their solution does, but without actually saying their solution can do that. Perhaps they carefully wordsmith a sales message that results in a different expectation than would be supported by reality. Perhaps they allow a potential customer to reach an erroneous understanding of their solution or company, but they make no attempt to correct this misunderstanding.
From a trustworthiness perspective, there’s really no difference. People see it and notice it more than you think, and it affects how much they are willing to trust individuals who engage in this type of deceit.
The real question is whether or not a leader is willing to contribute to or tolerate a false expectation in order to take advantage of another. If the answer is yes, that person is not trustworthy.
Unfortunately, there are multiple examples of people in leadership positions who have gotten to the point where they begin to believe things that are factually incorrect. Sometimes these are honest mistakes, and in rare circumstances they can be forgiven. But for the most part, repeating lies, even if one believes them to be true, can be just as damaging to one’s ability to lead as the practice of intentional deception. Most people believe those in a leadership position have an elevated responsibility to verify facts and claims before repeating them as true. Lying with a good excuse doesn’t make you trustworthy!
Leaders need to be careful about what they say and how they say it.
Gaslighting: A Harmful Way to Enable Deception
Recently there’s been a phenomenon garnering more attention in discussions of sociopathic behavior—Gaslighting.
Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which a person sows seeds of doubt in another individual with the intent of causing them question their own sanity, often as a rouse to distract that individual from discovering some harm being done.
This is a terrible practice because it aims to destroy a person’s confidence in their own ability to separate truth and fiction. From a leadership perspective, this practice is absolutely unethical, and it destroys effective leadership capabilities in two different ways. First, when someone is unable to distinguish truth and fiction, they are reluctant to trust. Second, when a victim of gaslighting realizes what is happening, they realize the abuser does not have their best interest at heart, and this amplifies the reason to not trust the gaslighter.
World Class Leadership Demands Truthfulness and Integrity
The most effective leaders are defined by their ability to get the most out of individuals and organizations. They are able to motivate others in a way that they enjoy being motivated, through inspiration and vision. Not fear. Not lies. Not belittlement or abuse. Great leaders can inspire people to do great things when people trust them—when people believe the would-be leader truly cares and wants the best for them. True leaders care about long-term success, and integrity is not something that can be faked over the long term. Leaders with integrity have the ability to build “High-Trust Cultures” based on what they say, what they do, and what they tolerate.
It Starts with You! (and Me)
Nobody’s perfect, and I’ve (for sure) told my share of untruths. In fact, if the studies are to be believed, we’ve all lied, and even the most honest of us do so on a daily basis, even without realizing it. But I believe most of us have the ability to be powerful, honest leaders by elevating our standards and committing to never use deception in an attempt to move ourselves forward at the expense of someone else.
This is not for the sake of others, but for the sake of improving our own leadership power by becoming more trustworthy individuals. So, here’s my challenge to you (and me):
Never lie to an employee or co-worker, including your boss. Telling a difficult truth means standing tall and demonstrating responsibility.
Never lie to a customer or potential customer. Never tolerate, endorse or condone exaggerated marketing messages. Focus on the true objectives of your product offering without inflating its capabilities.
Never lie to an investor or potential investor. Put yourself in their shoes and divulge the truths you would like to know if the roles were reversed, and you were considering investing your own money.
Never spin a story or stretch the truth or even allow a wrong perception to persist in order to win something that isn’t deserved or in order to avoid the responsibility that comes with your job or your actions. Real leaders embrace responsibility and acknowledge reality to all the key stakeholders. Make it a habit to divulge truth.
Never perpetuate even a lie you (or someone else) may have told in the past. Make the correction. Clarify the truth. And move on.
Show by your example what level of integrity should be tolerated inside the organization. Display character traits that are worth being emulated by others in the organization.
When in doubt, practice the golden rule. With respect to honesty and integrity, treat others as you would like to be treated by others.
By living a higher standard of integrity, we elevate our OWN leadership power and our ability to influence others, both for their individual benefit AND for the benefit of the organization. For true leaders, there is no benefiting the organization without looking out for every individual who belongs to it. Ultimately, trustworthiness and integrity will benefit everyone.
If you’re the CEO or the presiding executive, think about how you communicate and what domino effects result from your actions and the actions you tolerate.
In the odd case that you work inside an organization with people that would penalize you for telling the truth, take that as an important clue that you would be better off moving on to a place that values integrity. Nothing can derail a successful career like wallowing in a toxic culture. Move to a place where you can be your best. Telling the unvarnished truth should be effortless. If you find yourself in a culture where you stress out about what might happen if you tell the truth, that’s a sign that, for your own sanity, you need to find a new place with new leaders.
The Benefits of High-Trust Leadership
As Covey points out, high-trust leadership leads to high-trust cultures—cultures where everyone thrives. The benefits are numerous:
High levels of collaboration and partnership
Positive and transparent relationships among all the important business stakeholders, starting with employees
More effortless communication
High levels of engagement, innovation, and problem solving
Less bureaucracy and politics
High energy created by relationships
Inspiring work done together for common purpose
Increased speed in delivering innovations and results
The benefits of high-trust leadership stand in stark contrast to the inevitable consequences of lesser standards of integrity. If you want to be a great leader, make sure honesty and integrity become your most important qualifications! And your leadership will become more valued than you can imagine.
The World Needs More High-Trust Leaders
In addition to the benefits afforded to those who want to increase their own leadership influence, many others stand to benefit from the existence of high-integrity leaders. Even beyond the organizations and the people they lead, trustworthy leaders have the ability to benefit society because of the examples they set and because of the way those elevated standards impact what society deems acceptable.
The world already has plenty of examples of leaders who are willing to lie, deceive, and gaslight their people. Those examples don’t improve society other than by serving as examples of what not to do. By accepting and embracing the challenge to become a more honest leader, you are on your way to changing the world in a very positive way. And I hope your success shines through as an example to follow.
About the Author: Jeff Robinson brings the perspective of two-decades of executive leadership and pricing expertise. Through his teams, he's worked with hundreds of companies across industries to help them improve their pricing practices and results. He has designed, marketed, and implemented pricing solutions used by hundreds of companies, whose combined revenues total more than one trillion dollars. Having earned a bachelor’s degree in economics, combined with an MBA in marketing and finance, he has brought new perspectives to the world of pricing, often challenging prevailing notions or widely accepted strategies. Combining his formal education with over 20 years’ experience, he has recently authored the book, Price for Growth, A Step-by-Step Approach to Massively Impact the Value of Your Company by Leveraging Focused Pricing Strategies. Today, he is leading the development of a new company, Revolution Pricing, focused on helping companies create and select appropriate pricing strategies for maximizing the value of their own companies.