This I Believe

Mike - Coronado, California
Entered on July 11, 2006
Age Group: 30 - 50

Leadership: an unspoken truth

I believe that the secret cornerstone of leadership is the ability to lie. I have never seen this expressed in any of the many books on leadership, or articulated by any of the experts, but I believe it to be so.

Contrary to what we openly tell each other and teach our children, lying is an important life skill. Life isn’t just chess, it is also poker. When leaders negotiate, the one incapable of lying is at a distinct disadvantage. Imagine negotiating with Hitler if you “could not tell a lie” or see through his; I wonder if that was Lord Chamberlain’s flaw?

I am not saying that leaders are liars anymore than the rest of us. What I am saying is that leaders, better than most of us, have the ability to lie, which is akin to the ability to sell, salesmanship for lack of a better word. Among the various techniques, two stand out, at least of late, as fairly common:

The first is projecting affability. We want to like our leader, just like we want to like our doctor. It is easier to like him if he appears to be down home, “aw shucks” wholesome; we like that, he is like us and we want to believe in him and what he is selling. To not like him is to not like our friends, to doubt him is to doubt our better selves.

The other technique is “spin” — framing the issue and splitting the hairs to your advantage. It doesn’t work so well by itself but combined with affability it can work wonders. Before we know it, we’ve bought what’s being sold and we’re pleased with the deal. And maybe that’s a good thing but maybe its not.

Neither technique is exactly deceitful but neither is it the plain spoken truth it pretends to be.

Chose your verb — persuade, convince, cajole, or inspire — leadership comes down to salesmanship, the ability to sell something. It is said, a great salesman can get you to buy almost anything, and so it is with leaders. What do Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Pol Pot have in common with Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela? Each was able sell, for better or worse, a new vision and thus each swayed the course of history.

The trick is if you oversell, you risk everything unraveling. And so, like with so many things, a fine balance is the key. You need the talent but it can’t be overused. If you can’t feign, you’ll never make it as a leader. If all you ever do is act a part, eventually you’ll lose yourself and your audience. That just right balance is ever so rare but I believe in the truth of this paradox.

The secret to leadership is the ability to lie but the key to successful lying is doing as little of it as possible. I think we need more of the later.