“You can’t handle the truth!”
So said Jack Nicholson as Col. Nathan Jessup in Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men. He thus offered one of the many justifications leaders often give for lying. This is sometimes also called the Santa Claus defense: It’s OK to tell children that Santa is real because it has a very positive outcome, and kids are not sophisticated enough to appreciate the truth.
The idea that some lies are OK recently became the subject of public discussion when former White House Communications Director Hope Hicks, in a closed hearing of the House Intelligence Committee, was asked whether she lied for the President. According to news accounts, she conferred with her lawyers and then admitted she had told “white lies” – inconsequential lies – for the president.
Of course, one of the dangers of justifying dishonesty by saying the lies are inconsequential is that people then question whether those lies really are inconsequential. Is that statement itself further dishonesty? Like with cockroaches, when we see one, we may assume that there are many others around too.
For 30 years, I have taught ethics in graduate business and communication programs and in schools run by the U.S. military. And one of the stickiest problems leaders in business and other disciplines face is handling the truth and its opposite. How much should leaders share with their teams? Do leaders need to tell all they know? Is withholding the truth the same as a lie? Leaders can, in good faith, grapple with these questions while avoiding dishonesty.
What Is A Lie?
Dishonesty is toxic. And there are many forms of dishonesty. For example, for publicly traded corporations, failure to disclose a material fact that a reasonable investor would consider important in making an investment decision can be a violation of the securities laws.
But what is a lie? In general, a lie has four parts:
• It is a statement of fact.
• It is false.
• It is known by the speaker to be false.
• It is said with the intent to deceive.
It’s this last element that distinguishes an ordinary false statement from a lie: the intent to deceive. It is also this last element that helps us understand the power of a material omission. If the information is withheld in order to deceive, it is dishonest.
Defenses Of Dishonesty
Leaders often resort to lies and other forms of dishonesty in the hope they can get away with it. But even when they are caught, they tend to justify their dishonesty — sometimes with the Santa Claus defense, sometimes with the “white lies” defense.
There are other justifications. Some claim the lie was just an innocent factual error, without the intent to deceive. Some justify lying to prevent a greater harm. Some justify the lie when there are conflicting duties, such as when the truth would violate confidentiality.
All too often, these justifications are not the actual reasons for the lies; they’re the rationale for the lies once the leaders have been caught in dishonesty.
But however compelling a justification may be in the moment, even if the leader isn’t caught, there is a fundamental problem with justifying dishonesty in some circumstances. And that is because repeated behaviors can become habitual.
Ethics As Habits
The very word ethics comes from an ancient Greek word that means habits. The Greek philosopher Aristotle noted that we are what we habitually do.
So the danger for leaders is that once you justify dishonesty in some circumstances, lying becomes easier and easier and can become habitual. Then there’s a real risk: The circumstances in which it’s OK to lie become more and more expansive, and pretty soon, lying becomes normalized. But the people the leader communicates with need to rely on what the leader says. And if the leader lies in some circumstances, those who matter to the leader may question whether to believe the leader at all.
And that can cause trust to plummet.
Warren Buffett, whose entire business arguably rests on the trust his investors have in him to manage their money responsibly, said “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” In today’s world, where a tweet can reach millions in under 30 seconds, it’s even more important to consider that. Because once trust is lost, it is very hard, and sometimes impossible, to restore.
While the short-term impulse of a leader under stress may be to tell a lie or to defend dishonesty to guard against embarrassment or harm, there’s a real risk that leaders will lose the trust of those who matter most. And then what?
The leadership discipline is this: Don’t deceive. The cover-up is always worse than the original problem. And the consequences aren’t worth it.