(By Jeffrey Pfeffer)
“Being honest and never dissembling is very consistent with the bland axioms of a “feel good” leadership discourse, but as in the case of sports, it is also remarkably inconsistent with what actually goes on in the real world.“
If lying — or even just exaggerating a bit — would help your team win, would you do it? More provocatively: should you do it?
Consider the case study unfolding right now in Brazil at the World Cup. For many players, pretending they’ve been fouled is no big deal. Called “flopping” or “diving,” a player who has felt a minimal amount of contact will grimace in agony, fall to the ground, and, often enough, get a bit of sympathy from the referee, who will award his team possession of the ball. But the players on the U.S. and the U.K. teams, reports the New York Times, don’t like to fake fouls. Are they leaving goals — and wins — on the table?
Being honest and never dissembling is very consistent with the bland axioms of a “feel good” leadership discourse, but as in the case of sports, it is also remarkably inconsistent with what actually goes on in the real world. Truth is, some of the most successful and iconic leaders, including many CEOs, were (and are) consummate, accomplished prevaricators.
There’s Steve Jobs, 2005 Stanford commencement speaker and technology icon. The phrase “reality distortion field,” coined by the one of members of the original Macintosh team, refers to Jobs’s amazing ability to present what he would like to be true as if it were already reality.
There’s Larry Ellison, one of the richest men in the world and Oracle CEO and co-founder. Not only did Ellison and Oracle get into trouble in the early 1990s from misrepresenting the company’s actual sales in financial filings. As nicely described in David Kaplan’s book about the origins of the Silicon Valley, Ellison was great at telling customers that a product was available even if he was just thinking about designing it – possibly in response to the potential customer’s inquiry.
In a darker vein, there are the tobacco industry executives, testifying under oath in front of Congress that they had no idea cigarettes had adverse health effects. The CEOs of Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns, among others, claiming their balance sheets were in great shape days before both firms collapsed. Former Senator Jon Kyle of Arizona maintaining, in 2011 as the federal government hurtled toward shut-down, that he could not support a continuing resolution that provided funding for Planned Parenthood because more than 90% of Planned Parenthood’s funds went to provide abortion services (the real number is more like three percent). Kyle’s statement, his office later claimed, was never intended to be factual – something that provided fodder for Jon Stewart’s Daily Show.
My takeaways? First of all, the amount of hypocrisy, in the world but particularly in the writing and speaking about leadership, is almost too vast to comprehend.
Second, all the moral “cluck-clucking” about how harmful this dishonesty is does nothing — or maybe even less than nothing — to change anything. Because people mistakenly believe that expressing disapproval is sufficient, they fail to follow through with initiatives that might actually compel people to be (more) honest.
Third, organizations — whether they are companies or soccer teams – exist in ecosystems and if you want to change individual behavior, you need to change the systems in which that behavior occurs. Or as a software company chairman once put it to me in conversation, “if everyone else is misrepresenting product availability, can we afford not to?” (This is where vaporware emanates from.)
Fourth, even as people express outrage over deception and misrepresentation, research shows that many, many people frequently engage in two processes that permit them to continue to do business with and support companies and leaders who have engaged in moral transgressions. One psychological process is moral rationalization — convincing themselves that the misbehavior wasn’t actually that serious. The other process is moral decoupling – arguing that the particular transgression is not relevant to the decision at hand — for instance, that sexual misbehavior is not probative of an athlete’s skills on the field.
Lying is incredibly common in everyday life in part because it helps to smooth over relationships. And the ability to convince people of something even if it is not quite the case, the art of salesmanship, is a quality actually both common to and useful in leaders. Note that even one of the early, iconic stories of truthfulness, George Washington admitting to his father than he cut down the cherry tree, is itself made up.
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