[November 07, 2013] Over the past few decades and recently in the past few weeks, there has been a lively discussion about the big lies told by politicians and the impact of those lies. Name any US President in the last 50 years and just about anyone can tell you about a “whopper” that had a highly visible blowback.
Big lies by senior leaders is going to happen. While I don’t condone lying, there are some rare times it will be necessary. Of course, this means someone, an imperfect human, will have to make a judgment decision on its “necessity.” In time of war and threats to the nation, strategic deception will evoke big lies of need. That has to be expected, especially if the lie was the foundation of success. Nevertheless, there are risks even here.
The foundation of great leadership is based on profound trust of the senior leader. People normally trust their leaders to, not only tell the truth but to also, get the job done honestly. When this bond is broken by the big lie, then there can be serious trouble. The most serious is loss of credibility of the leader. Followers will no longer listen and enemies /competitors will maneuver to the advantage.
“He who permits himself to tell a lie once, finds it much easier to do it a second and third time till at length it becomes habitual.” – Thomas Jefferson
Senior leaders who tell the big lie, except for strategic deception, are intellectually lazy or lack the confidence to have hard discussions with people. Simply stated, they lack the moral courage to do the right thing. If senior leaders have secrets that must be kept, then they should be open and frank about having them.
So, a senior leader’s credibility is what gets people to listen, to follow, to be convinced by that leader. Once lied to, this fragile commodity of credibility erodes quickly and is difficult to get back.
The solution is not to lie. To take action to make things right, a senior leader must first quickly admit to the act. If a leader is perceived to have lied even if they did not, immediate action still must happen. Credibility will be slow to return but it will if effort is made to restore the trust. This means admitting to the lie publicly, apologize often, and explain what that leader will do to repair the error. Compounding a lie by further lies will open a Pandora’s Box of problems for the leader and the organization.
The risk senior leaders take with the big lie, is that with a loss of credibility, people will no longer listen or follow. Anyone associated with that leader and the organization will also be tarnished and everyone losses.
Acting with moral courage is hard. Senior leaders with practiced courage are more likely to understand those risks and avoid the big lie.