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How Leaders Become Liars

How Leaders Become Liars

So NBC News anchor Brian Williams is himself in the news recently regarding his “conflating” of various memories while reporting from Afghanistan. And it turns out (if reports are accurate) that NBC executives have had concerns for years about his tendency to inflate the stories of his personal experiences, from his on-the-ground observations during Hurricane Katrina all the way back to his pre-NBC days rescuing puppies as a volunteer firefighter in New Jersey.

Many have noted that with his Afghanistan stories in particular, the inflation has occurred gradually over time. Which makes this a great example of how leaders in business, government (and journalism apparently) learn to become liars. They don’t start out telling “whoppers.” They typically begin with the subtle, gently inflated stories, and if there is no negative feedback or push-back, over time they become more bold.

Based upon observations of numerous leaders who have gone down this path, it seems there are typically 4 stages that they go through on the path to becoming an out-and-out liar.

Step 1. The Leader Learns They Can’t Always Tell the Whole Truth

Obviously there are times when a leader has to communicate carefully and sometimes simply cannot reveal information – financials, restructuring plans that haven’t yet been announced, individual performance issues, to name just a few.

And leaders who are not careful can get “burned” when they say things in a careless or too-fully-transparent manner.

So the first step on the path to becoming an out-and-out liar is one that almost every leader has to take. But if they aren’t careful this can easily lead to the second step.

Step 2. The Leader Doesn’t Get Critical Feedback When They Obfuscate

There is no bright red line between careful communication to (properly) protect information and obfuscation in order to deceive and/or impress others. It is very easy to transition over that line, and many leaders do so at least occasionally.

And let’s face it – some leaders got to where they are partly because of their ability to “spin” information in a manner that impresses, and sometimes deceives, others.

When a leader does tip toe across the line and does not get any critical feedback, perhaps even gets rewarded or lauded for it, it becomes easier and easier to cross the line again. This ultimately can lead to Step 3 in which the leader begins to live and work in an alternate reality.

Step 3. The Leader Works and Lives in a “Bubble”

Most leaders think they are bright and funny. Because everyone around them likes their ideas (even the bad ones) and laughs at their jokes (even if they aren’t funny). Most leaders don’t realize that they live in a “bubble” which distorts reality – and over time the distortion BECOMES their reality.

So a leader’s internal filter for what is truly a great idea and what is really funny can fade away. And in the same way a leader’s internal filter for what is really true vs. what is true just because he or she says it is true, can also fade away. The leader starts to believe his or her own lies, because EVERYONE ELSE believes them.

At the extreme, some leaders become totally disconnected from reality, operating almost as if they can create a new reality – just because they said it is so.

Step 4. The Leader is Shocked When the Bubble Finally Bursts

While some are able to maintain their distorted reality forever, most leaders eventually are shocked when the bubble bursts. Someone calls them on their lies, in a manner that is credible and irrefutable. And when this happens you can usually see the profound confusion on the leader’s face. Usually they will make at least one strong attempt to explain away the obfuscations with more obfuscation.

But when the bubble does finally burst, most leaders are never able to recover and ultimately have to fade away into the twilight of their career.

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