A recent article, Of Course Presidents Lie, by John Blake reminded me of an aspect of leadership we don’t talk about – the art of deception. In our culture being purposefully deceptive, cunning or evasive is not something we openly associate with leadership. My friend Ryan described this aspect of leadership, with some disdain, as “being sneaky.”
Is deception necessary? Imagine if, when pressed, Martin Luther King, Jr had divulged the details of his private conversations with President Lyndon Johnson. The two conversed privately many times to orchestrate passage of important legislation. Johnson implored King to keep certain information and intended legislation secret while the President put his plans in place. The details, should they have emerged, may have led his followers to relax and become complacent. The news would have certainly rallied the opposition and hamstrung President Johnson’s plan to garner the votes he needed.
When is deception acceptable? When the news is likely to cause others to lose hope or revolt we should be less than forthcoming. Delaying or purposeful evasion is described by leadership experts as “pacing the work.” For example, let’s say careful analysis by our staff leads to the conclusion that a timber harvest is needed to improve pink unicorn habitat – a controversial topic! During the analysis staff should not speak publicly about their pre-decisional work. And announcing an agency decision to consider timber harvest days before a historic pink unicorn stakeholder meeting would likely diminish trust between the partners. Instead, tossing out the timber harvest as one of several ideas at the stakeholder meeting would show what the agency is thinking while being open to advice. Concluding the meeting with a timber harvest proposal that has stakeholder changes might be even better.
When is deception not acceptable? In my experience people are naturally evasive about the merits of their opposition’s position. It is human nature to tout the merits of our tribe while picking apart the views of others. We are sometimes guilty of hiding positions and information that doesn’t conform to our own. Suppressing information that challenges our idea or decision, is unacceptable deception. If discovered, scuttling contrary information will damage our credibility. We should work hard to avoid confirmation bias and the deception that comes with it.
Leadership is leading others to solve complex social problems. The exercise of leadership includes telling people what they don’t want to hear. Leadership is withholding ideas or information until the time is right. Call it deceptive. Call it sneaky. Whatever we call it, in my view, we should be evasive only when necessary. Stakeholders may not like the tactics, but in the long run history will view the act as a necessary part of accomplishing important, messy work.
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