A Question About Honesty

I have a question for you. I have posed it to many and it has prompted some interesting discussion and hopefully thoughtful reflection. First a little background.

In my thirty years of work with authors Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner (The Leadership Challenge, and others), we have researched attributes people say they most admire in leaders. Honesty is the top choice across the decades of survey work with nearly 90% of respondents selecting it as one of the top 7 attributes they look for. Intellectually and emotionally, it makes sense. Do you really want a leader who is dishonest? As you might imagine, we have not heard very many people answer that with a resounding yes.

In our survey of millennials, we found that honesty was selected by around only 60%, This is noticeably different. We do not have a broad enough data base yet (only 2000), and there may be some differences in definitions, so we have not yet come to any empirical conclusions about how significant that difference may truly be. But it is interesting.

I recently came across an article which explained how people know their candidate of choice in an election is not always honest, and how the lies told by that candidate tend to actually bond the group of supporter s closer together. I have come across plenty of research illustrating how people will knowingly vote for someone they know to be lying about things. But, that’s politics, right?

So, leaving politics behind, here is my question. People say they want leaders of any kind to be honest. So, to what extent do you believe people (maybe including yourself) would still choose to follow a leader whom they know does intentionally fabricates the truth. Let me add a bit more. What if you perceive the lies, which are actually told by the leader, have good payoff or benefit for you and the tribes to whom you belong or affiliate with?

How much wiggle room will you give any leader if you think his or her dishonesty is for something you consider to be a sound, even noble outcome? I once worked for a senior person who acknowledged it was acceptable to lie to a customer about a service installation date, in order to get the contract. His rationale was if we told the truth, the date would be unacceptable to many customers and we would lose the opportunity to even compete for the business. It can get complicated very quickly, can’t it?

The German philosopher and poet, Friedrich Nietzsche has been attributed with the quote, “the most common sort of lie is the one uttered to oneself.” As imperfect human beings, we will all fall prey to the difficult standard of honesty, even to ourselves. Being honest is very, very hard. It is also very, very personal. I believe that is why personal accountability is such a challenging business issue these days. When something has gone south, most would rather toss the blame grenade on something or someone else, rather than being honest with themselves that they personally dropped the ball in some fashion. We will save that discussion for another day.

Honesty for many is indeed an ideal, but like all ideals it takes courage and effort to achieve it. If you expect your leaders to be honest, then that means honest, not just honest when it best suits you. You simply cannot turn your back and ignore or even defend a lack of honesty, just because you embrace the leader.

I am in the camp of wanting leaders to tell the truth. Even if I do not like the truth, it makes the leaders easier to trust. And there can be no real leadership if trust is missing. And I know from experience how daunting this ideal can be. None of us will ever be a perfect role model. But if we know everyone around us will support us in those really tough times when being honest shines a light on something we would rather keep hidden, it might make it easier to take the risk. And remember this. For those to whom you are a leader, they are expecting you to be that honest person, just as you expect it of those leading you.

Good luck and take care.

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