Should Leaders Ever Lie? June 13 2013

lie-detectorNews stories don’t get much bigger than this week’s revelation that government contractor Edward Snowden revealed classified information to The Guardian and the Washington Post that the National Security Agency has a program that collects and analyzes the phone records of millions of Americans.

This post isn’t a commentary on the NSA program or what Snowden did (although I agree with Jeffrey Toobin’s argument on why he should be prosecuted).

Rather, it’s about the question, should leaders ever lie? The question comes to mind because the Snowden case demonstrates that leaders of intelligence agency leaders have been less than forthcoming with the full truth when asked in Congressional hearings about systematized surveillance of Americans.

For example, as reported in the New York Times, in a March open hearing, Senator Ron Wyden asked the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, “Does the N.S.A. collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” Clapper’s answer was “No, sir.  Not wittingly.” As further reported in the Times, “in an interview (last) Sunday with NBC News, Mr. Clapper acknowledged that his answer had been problematic, calling it  ‘the least untruthful’ answer he could give.”

The NSA story is a complicated, high stakes case with complex leadership choices and challenges. Most leaders don’t have to play at this level, but almost all leaders encounter situations when they have the choice to tell the truth or lie.  It can be helpful to understand your decision making criteria before you have to make that choice. Here are some ideas to consider if, as a leader, you should ever lie:

My friend and Georgetown Leadership Coaching faculty colleague Lloyd Raines and I were talking about this question this week and he raised an interesting question – Is there a value that can trump truth that most reasonable people would agree with?

The most obvious example I can think of is lying to protect the lives of innocent people would almost always trump the value of telling the truth. While most leaders don’t find themselves faced with such decisions, those responsible for our national security sometimes do.

The dilemma, of course, is that when the leader is exposed as being less than truthful, trust in that leader can take a hit.

And trust, perhaps, is what it comes down to. Unless you’re a leader who’s charged with protecting the lives of others is the lie you might tell worth the risk to the trust that others invest in you?

There are no easy answers but it helps to at least ask the question.

Whats your take? Should leaders ever lie? If so, under what conditions?

7 Responses to “Should Leaders Ever Lie?”

  1. Alex says:

    Hello Scott,

    Tricky question indeed. The first answer that comes in mind is an absolutely "No". We are learning from the childhood that lying is not a virtue. After that the word "leader" strengthens my answer as he has a lot larger responsibility on what he says and on what he acts. On a long run a leader becomes a model for his fans, team mates, employees….he is followed. So I wouldn't follow a liar.
    Now, lying to protect innocent lives. Hmm. That's a hard one and a deep philosophy issue. But on a second thought… generally telling the truth and acting accordingly is morally good. Following moral principles from the beginning there wouldn't be a such point where someone must tell a lie for another well benefit. So there must have been some circuit break on the line.

  2. mikecaracalas says:

    I believe there is always a way to balance the truth with responsibility. There is always a spirit of truth and integrity that can be reconciled with the needs of circumstances, without resorting to intentionally misleading. To intentionally mislead is to destroy the credibility necessary to lead others. I suppose I'd go a step further and say, if lying is required or justified in some way, then it's a conscious decision to drop the pretense of leadership. Lying and accomplishing a task may be compatible, but lying to, and then seeking to lead other human beings is never compatible.

  3. Bill says:

    "Never do a wrong thing to make a friend or to keep one." – Robert E. Lee

    Trust is the foundation all relationships are built upon. There were ways the NSA director could have answered the question that would of retained the "TRUST" we have in our Leaders. To use the excuse that it is okay to lie to "save lives" beckons to the lines exchanged between Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson, "I want the truth! You can't handle the truth!" which I argue is only good when it comes to movies. For example, should a doctor, who may believe that a cancer patient's confidence may alter the inevitable, lie to that patient and say they are not going to die, in the hopes that the patient's belief in life will alter the cancer's progression towards death? Would I want my doctor to lie to me? Absolutely not.

  4. David Myers says:

    After you hear one lie, there's no reason to believe that any following statement isn't a lie.

  5. Mike says:

    In my opinion, the answer is "NO", Leaders should never lie. I would temper this with the statement that "truth" is based on a level of belief or perception. This is not a Black & White situation. I would not presume to believe that the NSA Director was responding completely on his own. His response to the question is based on his or his superior’s knowledge at the time of the question and the perceived good or bad that would come from his reply. This does not absolve him of the responsibility to be honest in answering questions that he is allowed to answer.

    Which one would you trust more the Director of the NSA who admitted the lie after the truth came out or the head of the IRS who refused to comment after getting caught? How about the politicians questioning him, do you trust them? This becomes a slipery slope.

    Ethics, integrity, & trust are all key components of Leadership. One lie can destroy all three.

  6. Roy says:

    Lying is not the correct answer, but the issue is more about the question in this case. When you MUST ANSWER the question, in a hearing such as this which is not supposed to be adverserial but fact finding, is whether or not the NSA is legally acting within their authority to obtain information that will assist in protecting our country and its' citizens. Unfortunately, we think transparency means we should know everything… Don't react immediately, but digest that for a minute. I am sure you can think of something you know that you just can't share with everyone, but if you cannot answer that you "are not at liberty to say", or you "will have that answer in the near future"…will you lie? Just a thought…

  7. ML says:

    Hi Scott,

    The question of whether "leaders" should lie is no different than the question of whether anyone should lie. And let's be clear: to lie is to willfully deceive by convincing others to accept a fabricated or distorted view of reality, a pretense. Unjustified lying, though universally accepted it seems, is serious evil.

    There are only two circumstances (that I know of) under which it is justified (i.e., moral) to lie: 1. Under threat of physical force; that is, in self-defense (which can and should be extended to include the defense of the nation); and, 2. When information being sought is legitimately private, and to respond with silence would create an implication.

    In the case of organizational leaders, determining what is and is not legitimately private is not an easy question to answer, especially in the realm of government and national defense. For the latter, no doubt a set of guidelines exists, founded on the need to protect sources, operatives, and citizens. At the very least, ALL plans, actions, and communications must be meticulously documented, so that accountability is maintained, if only after-the-fact. Situations may call for deceit, but it must be known by all stakeholders that the deceit is strictly delimited and time-bound. The truth will out.

    In the case of the recent NSA exposure, whether one views Snowden as villain or hero depends on how one appraises the NSA and the government it reports to. If the US government can still be considered to be by-the-people, of-the-people, and for-the-people (that is, just and good), then Snowden is a traitor and a villain, and deserves to hang.

    If, as Snowden obviously judged, the US Government is corrupt, self-serving, and transgresses citizen's rights (rather than protecting them); acting, at best, in the national interest but using questionable means, or, at worst, acting to cement it's own power and ultimately enslave the people, then he's a hero, deserving of our admiration for having the courage of David.

    The reality is likely somewhere between best and worst case scenarios, and given the obfuscation, spin, and misinformation, and the distortion and indiscriminate amplification by the media, we'll never know. We can only hope that those with the decision-making and actionable power in this case are good and just. How likely is that?


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