Listen to this story
Why Good Leaders Tell Lies
Conventional wisdom states that sincerity and transparency are key to building trust. Not anymore.
One could say that President Donald Trump is authentically false rather than falsely authentic. That would explain the strange appeal of Trump’s off-the-cuff rawness and why his base doesn’t seem to bother about his, to put it mildly, loose relationship to the truth. Salena Zito observes in The Atlantic: “The press takes [Trump] literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” There is apparently a difference between truthfulness and authenticity.
These are interesting times for truth. In one respect, we’re experiencing its renaissance. Investigative journalism is having a field day in the wake of presidential lies, fake news, and algorithmic manipulation. Subscriptions for the New York Times and the Washington Post are soaring. Likewise, transparency, honesty, and authenticity are widely heralded as the hallmarks of leaders who want to restore our era’s eroding trust in politics and business. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) and writer Anand Giridharadas are examples of these new heroes. They have each called out ugly truths, provoking debate about social inequality. Even the often-maligned Jeff Bezos earned acclaim for choosing truth over personal benefit when he opted to go public about the National Enquirer’s alleged extortion attempts. People respect those who call a spade a spade.
In another sense, though, the concept of truth is being seriously tested. Social media has fragmented it. What some welcome as the logical democratization of a pluralist society others lament as the atomization of public discourse. More than ever before, we face myriad truths with myriad platforms to express and promote them. In addition, A.I. technologies now enable “deep fake” audio and video that can hack or hijack entire identities; it’s a technology with such grave potential that even the Pentagon has begun to fight against it.
We lie because we are human
Despite all the talk about algorithmic manipulation, it’s important to remember that truth remains an inherently human domain. We lie because we are human. Psychological scientists have noted that in 25 percent of all social interactions, people don’t tell the truth. Psychologist Robert Feldman once found that the majority of people lie at least once in every casual conversation. And Trump, the Washington Post has calculated, produces an average of 8.3 lies a day.
We have to accept that truth is always subjective. In reality, we may only protect and preserve it if we accept that one singular objective truth does not exist.
More transparency does not equal more trust.
This should not excuse liars and demagogues. It might help us realize, however, that their moral failure is not in bending the truth — but in the end to which they bend it. The ultimate Orwellian dystopia is not a world where we’re lied to by the government but one where we’re no longer allowed to lie. China’s social credit system gives us a clue as to what this kind of data-driven surveillance society might look like. Lying can be an act of freedom, of dissent and dissidence. Lying is what artists do: They rebel against the world as it is and come up with a different one. Entrepreneurs do the same.
Clearly, we cannot afford to live in a culture of lies. At the same time, a society that insists on one singular truth and does not allow space for some kind of alternative reality is not desirable either. As we look more toward quantitative data as the sole source of truth, it’s good to remind ourselves that real truth is often too precious to be reduced to something mathematically precise.
Fiction can fail, but so can truth
Orson Welles knows a thing or two about this. With his 1938 radio program, War of the Worlds, he caught a panicked public off guard when they did not realize the alien invasion depicted in the broadcast was actually a work of fiction. Then, in 1941, the U.S. government asked him to travel to Brazil and produce a documentary, It’s All True, as a public diplomacy initiative during wartime.
In her novel of the same title, author Carmen Stephan zooms in on one of Welles’ movie episodes — “Four Men on a Raft” — which was supposed to tell the true story of four impoverished fishermen who sailed the open sea from Fortaleza to Rio de Janeiro, then Brazil’s capital, to present their grievances in person to President Getúlio Vargas. Their 61-day boat-ride-turned-campaign garnered national attention, and they arrived in Rio as heroes. Vargas met with them and promised to improve the living conditions of their peers. For the movie, Welles asked the four fishermen to play themselves. But tragedy struck, and the leader of the four, a man nicknamed Jacaré, drowned during the filming. It’s All True remained unfinished.
We not only need facts, we need new fictions.
In her book, Stephan focuses on the relationship between Welles and Jacaré and how their fates intersected. We have forgotten the truth, she writes, because we have forgotten what binds us together and instead divided it into compartments of disparate knowledge. Welles failed the very moment he tried to merely re-enact the truth instead of bringing it to life as fiction.
We need new fictions to beat the algorithms
What does all this mean for leaders? First, managers should give up the popular belief that radical transparency is the panacea for trustworthiness. As Australian trust researcher Rachel Botsman points out, more transparency does not equal more trust: “Transparent cultures and transparent relationships are low-trust relationships” because trust is “a confident relationship to the unknown.” One could also argue that when everything happens in glaring sunlight, there are no secrets, responsibilities, or bad ideas. Democracy may die in the dark. Innovation, however, dies in radical transparency.
Second, being honest is often not enough to inspire others; great leaders must be exceptional storytellers, too. For most people, true is what feels true. Authentic leaders don’t always have to tell the truth, but they don’t have to be fully transparent, either. Rather, their authenticity emanates from how they embody their own personal truth and, by doing so, how they connect the rest of us with a more profound universal one.
Mark Zuckerberg may try to assure us that better A.I. is the most effective remedy for fake news. But we will not win against algorithms with better algorithms; we will only beat them by telling the better stories. To paraphrase communication theorist and psychologist Paul Watzlawick: We cannot not manipulate. We must simply learn to manipulate more effectively than the algorithmic manipulators.
In times like these, we not only need facts, we need new fictions (or, in the milder marketing jargon, “narratives”). They give us hope — and hope is a leader’s strongest asset. People trust those who give them the most of it.
An earlier version of this story appeared in Psychology Today.