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Scott Eblin offers his take on lessons in the news and his advice on your pressing leadership questions.

Should Leaders Ever Lie?

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Image via igor.stevanovic/Shutterstock.com

News 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.

What’s your take? Should leaders ever lie? If so, under what conditions?

Image via igor.stevanovic/Shutterstock.com

Executive coach Scott Eblin’s goal is to help you succeed at the next level of leadership. Throughout the week, he’ll offer his take on the leadership lessons in the news and his advice on your most pressing leadership questions. A former government executive, Scott is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.

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