[July 14, 2015] In the movie Liar Liar, the star Jim Carrey is a fast track lawyer that can’t lie for 24 hours due to his son’s birthday wish. Of course, being a lawyer and forced to tell the complete truth in all circumstances is what makes this movie so funny. It is no secret that people lie. The problem is not only that leaders lie, often they encourage lying, and that can lead to serious and harmful consequences that undermine both the organization and the people who follow that leader.
Politicians are time and again judged as the biggest liars and we often make fun of a serious problem when they do.1 Lying is associated with trustworthiness and breaks the social bond between politicians and their constituents. Senior leaders in institutions should be working hard to fix the problem. When lying becomes an institutional imperative, the cost can be enormous. The U.S. military is studying the extensiveness and consequences of lying.2
“You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” – Abraham Lincoln
The best leaders do everything they can to prevent lying from occurring because they know that when we force people to compromise their ethics on small things, it can lead to greater lying in the future. We teach them moral dilemmas and how a bad decision, like lying, can often have unintended negative penalties. We provide guidance and suggestions for proper conduct in one’s life; in particular this is done through the use of instructive lessons, principles, and ethical concepts.
Ways leaders encourage lying, sometimes inadvertently or purposefully, by:
- Placing people in ethical dilemmas that require them to make dishonorable choices.
- Creating overwhelming, unrealistic, or meaningless demands.
- Placing people at a significant disadvantage to others (e.g., students lying on grant applications, falsely declaring themselves a racial minority3, or getting ahead at a job4).
- Generating fear of reprisal in order to avoid conflict.
It takes considerable self-discipline and self-confidence in one’s self, as well as practice, to stop lying. For what it’s worth, I have personally found that people who work in rigid organizations (similar to socialist and communist countries) are more likely to lie and they do so very creatively. Some call this creativity as “ethical fading”; where there is subtle slide down the ethical slope.
General Ray Odierno, U.S. Army Chief of Staff, said that we need to “uphold values like honesty.”5 The job for great leaders is to resist this trend, fight it by instilling core values that rightly affect character, competence, and commitment. I don’t normally end with a quote but I think this one by Odierno is appropriate.
“The foundation of our profession is centered on trust … it will take every measure of competence and commitment to forge ahead and above all it will take character.” – General Ray Odierno
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