When Leaders Lie

by Alli Polin on February 26, 2013

When leaders lie the truth is lost and the organization loses

When do we learn to lie to spare the feelings of others?  How do we come to the point that we are unable to be honest and open or straightforward and caring?  Why is even positive, constructive confrontation viewed as bad and little lies good?  It’s a behavior that we see over and over from senior leaders, mid-level managers, customer service reps, parents and children.

Earlier today, I took my children out for a treat at a local coffee shop after school.  My son got a chocolate mud muffin but I knew from prior experience with this coffee shop that the muffins look better than they taste.  When he was full, he offered a bite to my daughter.  As she took the bite he asked with love and anticipation, “How do you like it?”  Three things happened all at once.

  • She looked like she was going to throw-up
  • I encouraged her to swallow – it’s not that bad
  • She gave him a smile and a thumbs up in response to his question

She wanted him to feel good so the lie seemed easier then telling him the truth: the muffin tastes like cardboard and crunchy bits.  She’s resourceful and I’m sure she could have found a kind way to let him know that she did not enjoy it.  Instead, confrontation was avoided and feelings spared.  Still, when he offers her a bite in the future, and she declines, he’ll wonder why since she liked it so much this time.

Leaders that lie to spare the feelings of their team aren’t doing them a service but are instead missing an opportunity to coach, mentor and help people change their behaviors or grow new skills.  Not to mention, leaders that trade the truth for a white lie are holding back organizational success.

“In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity”  ~ Albert Einstein

Leaders that learn to speak the truth not only build trust but also embody integrity, respect, and authenticity.  In fact, you may not realize that the lies are about you…  not the person whose feelings you are sparing.



I don’t want them to feel bad. I want them to like me.
I don’t have time for this. I matter more than they do.
I can’t trust them with the truth. I only trust myself.
They won’t understand. I don’t really understand.
It doesn’t really matter in the long run. I’m not invested.


Here’s a leadership Stop – Start  – Continue to get over the lies and start building relationships based on truth and a desire for shared success:

  • Stop saying “I value transparency” – live it with integrity
  • Stop the white lies – they’re still not the truth
  • Start having honest conversations while holding an awareness of the other person’s humanity and feelings
  • Start asking others to be real (and respectful) with you
  • Start authentically responding with courage and caring
  • Continue to look for ways to keep the people on your team happy
  • Continue to love your people so much that you’ll stop at nothing to let them know they matter

Trust is impossible without the truth, and without trust, you may have a senior title but you are not a leader.  Stop sparing feelings and be a leader that values and respects people enough to be a model for leading from the truth.

What would you add to this Stop – Start – Continue?

(Photo credit)

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Jon Mertz February 26, 2013 at 9:03 am


It is an interesting human element of dancing around the truth rather than being straightforward. In many cases, it is about a need to not hurt someone’s feelings or, as you point out, not have others dislike us. I believe as we age we begin to realize that telling constructive truths is better than dancing around it. Maybe there is a Truth Maturity Model! So, my Start-Stop add is: Start being mature in how you offer constructive truth. Stop being immature when it comes to telling constructive truth.

Good things to think through!



alli February 26, 2013 at 7:52 pm

Jon – Like how you put it “constructive truths.” By holding the growth, development and strength of the person while delivering the truth, we’re also living up to our commitment as leaders. GREAT addition to Stop & Start! And thanks for leaving me one to consider… the Truth Maturity Model. Like it!

As always, your insights add so much. Thanks, Jon!


chris February 26, 2013 at 10:54 am

Wow blown away with how well you articulated this!


alli February 26, 2013 at 7:52 pm

Chris – That means so much to me! Thank you.


Terri Klass February 26, 2013 at 11:25 am

Through this post, Alli, you really capture the essence of why it is so important for leaders to be transparent and honest. I think the critical point you make is that it could be a missed opportunity to coach a team member to be more successful if we don’t speak the truth. They deserve that from us.
By the way, what is a chocolate mud muffin?
Thanks for your wonderful insights!


alli February 26, 2013 at 7:55 pm

Terri –

Thanks for your feedback! Absolutely, trading a lie, even one meant to spare feelings, and missing the opportunity to coach and mentor someone to greater success is a mistake. Leaders need to stand with the team to forward success and not just protecting their egos.

A chocolate mud muffin? It should be a warm and gooey chocolate chocolate chip muffin. This one? Not so much.


Alice Chan February 26, 2013 at 1:05 pm

You introduced great thoughts about honesty and building trust. One “start” I’d add is for each leader to get to know ourselves well and cultivate a sense of comfort with our own strengths and weaknesses. It’s when we don’t know ourselves that we slip into lies we tell ourselves, as you so nicely tabulated above, and, in turn, others. It’s not an overnight task, but rather takes practice. But, I’m convinced that we can’t really be accepting and loving leaders until we can accept and love ourselves just as we are. Thank you for this post, Alli!


alli February 26, 2013 at 7:57 pm

Alice –

When leaders accept themselves, just as they are, they can accept others, faults and all, without judgment. What a fantastic Start to add to the list. When we can be truthful with ourselves, we can more easily speak the truth to others.

Thank you for sharing your insights! As always, spot on!


Amber-Lee Dibble February 26, 2013 at 2:34 pm


I have a saying… Don’t beat around the bushes, that’s how people get lost… and that’s dangerous in the wilderness!

Maybe I am just “simple” but I have found, and have lived since I was very young, the truth is much easier to understand. I may not like it, but if it is the truth, then I have somewhere to start. Without it, it (whatever the “lie” may be) cannot be faced, learned, dealt with.

I really like your “what I say” / “What I mean” box… it is really something to think about, Alli.

Thank you for another post to make me a better leader.


alli February 26, 2013 at 8:00 pm

Amber-Lee –

What a fantastic saying! Rings true in the wilderness and at the office. When we tell the truth, there is far less to keep track of… we don’t need to cover ourselves or remember who we told what. As leaders, we owe it to our teams to model transparency and integrity.

You always bring a new depth to the conversation! Thank you!


Karin Hurt February 26, 2013 at 5:55 pm

I too am a leader-mom, writing on similar topics. I never comment with links to posts, but this one is just too similar. It would be fun to connect.



alli February 26, 2013 at 11:09 pm

Karin –

Loved your post! Definitely a complement to this one. You’re right, speaking the truth does take courage on the part of the leader (and the parent). Happy to “meet” you and look forward to more. Thanks for sharing!


John Thurlbeck March 7, 2013 at 3:16 am

Hi Alli

Playing catch up with lots of #LeadWithGiants stuff today but just wanted to say how much I enjoyed this post! I have written about trust too as it is critical to great leadership. I loved the Stop-Start-Continue list but, most of all, I loved the ‘… Trust is impossible without the truth, and without trust, you may have a senior title but you are not a leader …’ That really resonated with me as I have seen it in play so many times! Thank you for reaffirming my beliefs! John 🙂


Alli Polin March 7, 2013 at 6:14 am


I greatly appreciate your comment! Too many leaders think that spin and half-truths are the way to the top. Thanks so much for adding your insights and hope you’ll visit again! Have much to learn from you!


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