On September 11, 1941, during his radio ‘fireside chat’, President Roosevelt knowingly lied to his American audience. “I tell you the blunt fact that the German submarine fired first upon this American destroyer without warning”. He did so in order to justify the war against Nazi Germany. On January 26, 1998, with his wife by his side, President Clinton knowingly lied to his American audience. “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”. He did so in order to protect himself from scandal. Is lying a concomitant symptom of effective leadership? If so, is there such a phenomenon as Plato’s ‘noble’ lie?
In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Brutus and Marcus Antonius both engage in dishonesty and deliberate inaccuracy. Their lies however, have diametrically opposed intentions: Brutus to save Rome and uphold a robust republic and Antonius for ambition and to avenge a murder. Lies build upon lies to placate, misdirect or garner favour from ‘the people’, resulting in war, Brutus’s suicide, and victory for Antonius. Thematically then, the tragedy explores the utility and ramifications of deception in leadership. Are we right to demand absolute truth from leaders at all times, or are there circumstances in which deception can be justified?
Absolutists such as Kant (Ellington, 1993) and St Augustine (Brown, 1887) maintain that lying is always wrong, whilst the utilitarian approach prefers to delve deeper into the context and results of the lie. Leaders must absolutely lie for many reasons – to maintain security, to protect the vulnerable, prevent a war (Alterman, 2004). Lying clearly has its place in leadership – however, what of lies steeped in self-interest? How do we gauge the worthiness of a lie?
Churchill described truth as being so precious it must be “attended by a bodyguard of lies”. If leaders must lie, and there are on occasion good reasons for it, discernment is critical. When, about what, to whom, why and with what result are key. This requires objectivity, self-awareness and experience – wisdom, if you will.
To leaders, as with impulsive teenagers, the short term benefits of lying are clear, present and hypnotically appealing; long term ramifications are rarely conceivable. Without wisdom, lies are a Shelby Mustang devoid of its steering wheel.
Alterman, Eric. (2004) When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences. Viking Penguin: New York.
Browne, H. (1887) Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 3. Christian Literature Publishing Co: New York
Churchill, W. The Second World War – Vol. 5 – Closing The Ring. Cassell & Co Ltd: London
Ellington, J.W. (1993) Grounding for the metaphysics of morals; with, On a supposed right to lie because of philanthropic concerns. Hackett Pub. Co.: Indianapolis
Roosevelt, Franklin Delano. "Fireside Chat 18: On The Greer Incident (September 11, 1941)". Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia.