Room for Lies in Leadership? Some Think Yes.

March 16, 2015 Joe Britto

We’ve all heard about how lies in leadership created the Enron scandal. You may have seen it laid out in technicolor detail by Alex Gibney in his movie, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. You may have even heard about Gibney’s take on Steve Jobs in his newest documentary, Steve Jobs: Man in the Machine. There we see the myth of Jobs exploded into a man with the “monomaniacal focus of a monk but none of the empathy of one” that shows “the ruthlessness, and the pointlessly crappy behaviour that reveal Apple’s ideals to be a sham”.

Provocative words.

And then there’s the UK ruling Conservative party Chair who flatly denied three times he ever had a second job while being an MP. Only to acknowledge this week that, well, yes he was running a web marketing company under a pseudonym.

It makes you wonder, doesn’t it? Lies in leadership. Does it work?

Ethical Fading

Read the Army Times and it seems although lying may be expedient for the military, it has its consequences. Not least of all what study authors Leonard Wong and Stephen J. Gerras refer to as “ethical fading” – the blurring of lines between what’s right and wrong.

And that has a consequence for an entire organization.

Leadership & Organizational Culture

Take that Enron example we started with. We all know by now that Enron lied to investors, employees and government regulators to hide its plummeting financial performance. But how did it ever get to that?

As Clinton Free writes in his article for the Ivey Business Journal, there’s a real causal link between the integrity of the leadership of an organization and what that company does in the real world.

How else do you explain a brand like Apple with profits enough to clean up its supply chain, still struggling to improve harsh conditions for the makers of its products?

The simple truth is leaders create cultural norms in companies according to their own focus. Focus on making as much money as you can regardless of the costs, and guess what you get?

Focus on leading with integrity and that focus ripples through your organization.

If The Whole World Followed You…

Sure you can make the argument lying works. It worked for Enron, it worked for many in the financial sector pre-2008 (and same say still does).

Thing is, lying as a leadership strategy is a short term game. Enron fell apart. Bernie Madoff, architect of the biggest Ponzi scheme in history, is now serving 150 years in federal prison.

But getting caught is just one of the consequences of lying in leadership.

A while ago now I heard a phrase that stuck with me: if the whole world followed you, would you be proud of where you led it?

It’s a simple but effective way to look at the decisions we make as leaders. Would you be proud to lie your way to the top? Would you be proud of the culture and organization those lies created?

If the answer to that question is no, then you already know true leadership isn’t about ambition and serving yourself, it’s about something more.

Leading with Courage

On the stand several Enron employees said they didn’t have any “good” reasons for doing what they did – it was just to maintain their position in the company. They conformed to a dominating corporate culture. Maybe that’s the ultimate lesson from Enron.

Maybe real leadership is about having the courage to speak the truth, even if you’re the only one speaking it.


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