How to Succeed in Business, Without Really Lying

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In business, it has been said that “Behind every great fortune is a great crime.”

Is dishonesty a requirement for corporate success? Integrity is an important part of leadership, but perhaps not a pervasive one. How can leaders create credibility, in this age of mistrust and misinformation?I don’t know about you, but I tend to mistrust anyone who writes about the subject of honesty.

It’s kind of like the Woody Allen joke that starts off Annie Hall: “I wouldn’t want to belong to a country club that would have someone like me as a member.”

While leadership is built on integrity and credibility, so many of our institutions seems to be built on mendacity – a strong word (or, SAT word – depends on your perspective) that means “lies, and lyin’”. I don’t believe that most people intentionally set out to run a shill game on customers, employees or voters.

Yet, businesses are amoral actors.  Corporations are made up of people, but they are not people.

Even operating within the rules, toward an objective of profitability, can lead to mistrust …when one person’s truth is another’s misfortune.

For quick examples of mistrust within the rules, consider your favorite airline, professional sport, or political candidate. See what I mean?

The problem comes not with honesty, but with what we (as individuals) believe.

If leaders are convinced that a perfect illusion is true, they will share that perspective. If that perspective turns out to be false, the leader appears dishonest – or unintentionally malicious.

So, circumstances determine our honesty.

That’s sort of like saying that circumstances determine our ethics.

Hmmm…this post isn’t turning out the way I originally intended. Let me try again:

We all express our beliefs as best we can – the truths we hold to be self-evident. But, when the evidence shows the contrary, credibility becomes suspect. For business leaders, and political leaders, the key to honesty doesn’t rest with our beliefs.

The best leaders understand the implications of their beliefs.

For example, consider the Presidential debates. What each candidate believes is on display. But what those beliefs mean to you is the centerpiece of the conversation.

Romney and Obama DebateLeaders have strong convictions, as well they should. The key to success in business, without really lying, is in communicating how your beliefs will impact others. The crucial part isn’t your vision – it’s establishing what your vision means to the lives of those around you.

For leaders in business or politics, the real question is: What do your beliefs mean to others? Being able to show that you’ve thought through the implications of your ideas is a great way to establish honesty. In these changing times, seeing the complex ripples of a decision or policy is no easy task.

If integrity matters to you, consider the implications of your vision. Seeing the results of your truth is making sure that honesty is, in fact, your best policy.

Horses of Helios Photo courtesy of Mr Andy Bird used under creative commons. Some rights reserved.

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