Of course presidents lie?

I don’t agree with the pretext of this CNN article that “of course all presidents lie” and that it is necessary for the job. Since I believe strongly that credibility is a key part of leadership, I think it is dangerous to make claims that lying is integral to the job. 

Credibility is a binary judgment people make about an individual in leadership and very easy to lose. Therefore, it is important to understand what hurts credibility and what may damage the related but different concept of competence.

To “lie” requires the speaker to know that what they are saying is not likely to be true. President Clinton clearly lied when said he “did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” He knew that what he was saying was not factually correct. Whether he had good or bad reasons for the lie is immaterial to this discussion and for his followers to evaluate anyway. 

My point is that just because a President says something that later turns out NOT to be factually true, it does not mean he lied.

CEOs will often say things that later turn out to be false. For example, while it seems popular to say President George W. Bush “lied” when he indicated Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, I think it was much more a question of competence. President Bush didn’t know whether the Iraqi’s had the weapons or not, but the way he went about concluding that they did struck at the heart of his competency.

In another instance, a CEO might say, “We will launch this product in Q3.” When Q3 comes around and the product doesn’t launch, people will not feel like you lied to them, but they may question your ability to deliver.

In my book it is not appropriate to “lie” to your team. That prohibition against lying doesn’t mean that you have to tell the whole truth always. You can certainly choose not to reveal information. But if you choose to speak and make a pronouncement to those you are leading, it must be credible. You have to believe it.

Clearly leaders may lie in negotiations with outside entities, but that is much different from a leadership perspective. As a CEO you should watch both your credibility and competence, as they are a big part of the tools you have to move an organization. Once you’ve lost them, they are extremely hard to get back.


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