Lying for Success

“The only way to get ahead is lie, cheat, and put yourself before others. ”

“Wow,” I thought.  I actually died a little inside as I heard these words spoken by a young professional woman who had come to a recent event that I had hosted.

Our current political climate, stories of philandering leaders, the 2008 housing economic meltdown, and abuses by religious leaders, provide strong support for her thesis.

She isn’t alone.  Not only do many people feel this way, but research seems to support this position.  Stanford professor, Jeffery Pfeffer, in his 2015 book, Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time dispassionately illustrates through data and social science that modesty, authenticity, honesty, selflessness, and trustworthiness are the antithesis for getting ahead and being ‘successful’.

“What makes individuals successful is often times the opposite of what people have been told to do,” Pfeffer says. “While we’re told to be modest and honest, and to take care of others and not self-promote, when you actually look at what produces leadership success, at least success as defined as career advancement and achieving a high salary, it’s pretty much the opposite of that.”

“Some of the greatest and most successful leaders in the history of business and politics have not always told the truth,” Pfeffer says… He says that the truth about good leaders is that they are often really good liars.

[reference: https://www.pri.org/stories/2015-10-01/professor-truth-about-really-good-leaders-theyre-often-really-good-liars]

Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer

So, it is no surprise, that one reviewer concluded that in order to be successful the keys are:

  • Inauthenticity works
  • Aggressiveness/assertiveness work
  • Acting and playing a role work (“immodesty” works)
  • The right amount of dishonesty works
  • And, apparently, leaders (and employees) self-centeredness work

[reference: https://ffbsccn.wordpress.com/2015/11/10/leadership-bs-my-six-lessons-and-takeaways/]

Is this what Pfeffer intended by his book?  Should we now be teaching people that to be ‘successful’ this is what it takes?  Pfeffer responds by indicating he isn’t a moral philosopher but a scientist, and he is going to teach everyone the science and hope that when these future leaders using his research rise to power, they use their power for good instead of evil.  [for quote and full article, please reference – – https://www.ft.com/content/788abdba-562e-11e5-a28b-50226830d644]

Said differently, the only way to succeed is to lie and cheat your way to the top, then once you get there, be a good person.

Great plan.

I can understand why my friend feels the way she does.  After all, a tenured Stanford professor who has taught organizational behavior since 1979 and author of 14 books filled with scientific research tells us it is so and the only hope is a change of heart once these leaders get to the top.

But is there another way?

Are there, for instance, any companies that employees love to work for, believe in its mission, trust their leaders, and would actively encourage friends to join them at their company?  There are such organizations, even Pfeffer points this out using DaVita as one such example.  Forbes survey of 30,000 employees provides an annual list of such places.

The 2016 top 100 list of employee- selected companies is impressive, including Google, Apple, Facebook, Walt Disney, Medtronic – these companies have a combined market capitalization of over 2 trillion dollars and if this were GDP this group would be in the top ten countries in the world.   There are also notable non-profit organizations such as the New York City Fire Department, Mayo Clinic, and even Stanford University where Professor Pfeffer has tenure.  Has he, Sheryl Sandberg COO at Facebook and author of Lean In, John Noseworthy, Bob Iger, Omar Ishrak, Sundar Pichai, as well as so many other leaders lied and cheated their way to the top?

[reference: https://www.forbes.com/best-employers/list/]

I don’t know.

What I do know, as far as lying goes, is that we all lie.

Each and every day.  Some small, some big.

According to a University of Massachusetts study, 60% of adults lie at least once in a ten minute conversation, 40% lie on their resumes, 90% lie on their dating profiles.  [reference: http://mentalfloss.com/article/30609/60-people-cant-go-10-minutes-without-lying].  So if we are all liars, how come we all are rising to the top of our organizations?  Is it because some people are just better liars than others as Pfeffer indicates?

Not really.

The simple fact is we are horrible at detecting lies.  We think we are good at it, but the research shows otherwise.  In general, we can accurately detect truth and lies about 54% of the time – basically it’s basically a crap shoot. [reference: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16859438]

Wangari Maathai

Therefore, not only do we all lie (and if you think you aren’t a liar, you’re lying to yourself right now) but we are all really good liars because most of the time people aren’t any better than chance at knowing if we are lying.  So lying, even being a good liar, isn’t the key to being CEO, president, chief of police, dean of a university and so on.

As far as being selfish or immodest, we all have these attributes too.

Do those who lie, cheat, and steal get ahead – yes, they do.
But they aren’t the only ones who do so.  History is replete with leaders who are the opposite – Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, Wangari Maathai, and numerous others.  Does it mean they never lied, were angry, selfish, or proud? Of course not, they would not be human if this were the case and to think differently is naive.  But was the core of their approach and success based on these negative attributes and did they only change once they rose to the top?

Not at all.  It’s what they did and how they did it in spite of these all too human characteristics that made them truly great.

Success has many different definitions and many paths.

The question is, what kind of a leader and what kind of person do you choose to be?

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