The Truth about Lies

20 April 2022

It seems there is a dangerous cocktail of lying and leadership.

Once upon a time there was great pride in telling the truth, but a reality of our current political climate is the prevalence of lies and misleading statements from some of our world leaders. We have descended in many of our communications to a level where the truth might, or might not, be included in what is being said about any given topic.

When Sun Tzu wrote The Art of War two thousand years ago, he was overtly opposed to telling the truth. He basically said telling the truth was a bad and dangerous thing to do relative to your enemies. He advocated deceit and skilful deception, and his strategies very intentionally used multiple layers of misinformation with the goal of defeating the enemy.

Creating a culture of deception can be extremely dangerous. I guess some leaders might think that they have the right (even a duty?) to distort the truth if it benefits the organisation because experience teaches us that the truth brings risks, but leaders who habitually lie run the risk of normalizing that behaviour and creating a toxic culture. Credibility is all and lying destroys a team’s trust for their leader - people simply don’t like being lied to.

Lies can be innocuous or they can be critically important. It can be difficult to get a straight answer to the most basic questions - for example, ‘How are you?’ Virtually no one expects to hear anything but, ‘Fine, thanks. And you?’ Withholding information has become normal. As children we are told many tales about the merits of telling the truth, but science says we learn to deceive as toddlers. Adages such as ‘Honesty is the best policy’ continue to influence our adult lives, but we often tell little white lies to make others feel better.

If you lie about the small things, people distrust you with the big things. Even worse, if you lie consistently, people may begin to instinctively distrust everything you say, just as the boy who cried wolf.

Communication, and with it the threads that connect us to each other, simply breaks down.

I maintain that truth is the most powerful trait shared by great leaders.

A leader’s words carry great power. Words can determine whether a business thrives or fails. Truthful words, a close grasp on reality and the willingness to follow through on actions are necessary tools for running and leading a business. All leaders should work towards developing a culture that supports truth-telling.

Great leaders build strong relationships founded on honesty, which in turn builds inspiring organisations.

We may never be perfect, but some of us can be a lot better than we are now.


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