When some of us were kids, we were taught that George Washington said, “I cannot tell a lie.” Unfortunately, that story was itself a lie, but it does offer solid advice that honesty is the best policy. Having the words come out of the mouth of George Washington, very possibly America’s ultimate leader, connected honesty and leadership forever.
Where does that leave NBC evening news anchor Brian Williams? He lied, multiple times. At the moment he is suspended from work, and a lot of folks wonder how he will ever reclaim any credibility at all. Right this second, I’m guessing that Mr. Williams wishes he’d followed the axiom of honesty as the best policy.
On the other hand, in 2008 Senator and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton told a story about getting off an aircraft and running across a Bosnian airfield, crouching below sniper fire. Unfortunately for Ms. Clinton, there was videotape of her arrival in Bosnia. Little girls greeted her with flowers but there wasn’t a single shot to be heard. Did this whopper cause any trouble for Ms. Clinton? Nope. She went on to amass the second largest primary vote total ever (Barack Obama, of course, had the largest ever), to become Secretary of State, and is generally considered the front runner as 2016 Democratic nominee for President. Maybe honesty as a policy is less important for politicians than for the press.
Most of us have seen people lie and get away with it; lie, get caught and still get away with it; and finally, lie and be penalized (but not much). In 30 years of working, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone fired for telling a lie. I once saw a guy fired for stealing. But a lie? No, a slap on the wrist and a good talking to seemed to suffice.
In one particular instance, I was a member of the board of a small non-profit where the CEO was caught defrauding the organization of funds and then lying to cover up. Was he fired for this egregious behavior? Nope. Not even close. It was felt that he was too important to the organization to get rid of him for finessing a few thousand dollars of the organization’s for his own benefit. Safeguards to prevent a recurrence were established, he was severely scolded, and he promised never to do it again. Eventually he retired on his own terms, lauded by most as a wonderful leader. (I bet Brian Williams wished he had a gig like that.)
If you’re a senior manager in an organization, you might wonder where this comes out for you. To lie, or not to lie, that is the question. From the examples above, it would seem that unless you are a network news anchor, you haven’t got much to lose by lying. But is lying really the best policy?
When in doubt about leadership issues, I look to Dwight D. Eisenhower. (After all, I wrote Lead Like Ike: Ten Business Strategies from the CEO of D-Day.) Ike was a great leader, and his greatness is most easily seen in his honesty. Eisenhower once said, “I know only one method of operation. To be as honest with others as I am with myself.”
Honesty is what makes truly great leaders. Without honesty, leaders are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Ike’s capacity for honesty and honor is the hardest and toughest of all his leadership qualities to emulate. When times are tough, when the results of a mistake are magnified, it can be almost impossible to admit mistakes or to accept the blame for things doing or saying things you shouldn’t have. The more dire the consequences, the harder it is to be completely honest. And the more necessary it is.
In the morning hours of June 5, 1944 with the fate of D-Day invasion of Normandy and millions of lives hanging in the balance, Eisenhower proved his greatness as a leader and a man by writing a note accepting the blame if Overlord turned out to be a disaster:
“Our landings . . . have failed . . . and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”
Any blame is mine alone. That’s an awfully high standard of honesty.
Do you want to lead like the folks listed above who wiggled and squirmed when confronted with their dishonesty? Or do you want to lead like Ike? After all, he was only the leader that TIME magazine called “The Man Who Beat Hitler.”
Is honesty the best policy? It is if you want to lead like Ike.
This article was written by Geoff Loftus from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.