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Congruency of Words, Deeds, and Intentions

A good leader, and a good person at that, knows their values and beliefs and lets those attributes guide their actions. A good communicator, on top of that, can clearly articulate their views from a place of genuineness. People who have firmly held moral beliefs and identity standards and who adopt behaviors consistent with these values are proven to be stronger, more authentic leaders.[1]


How One Should Act vs. How One Does Act

If a person knows what’s right and has the moral fortitude to act on those righteous beliefs, they will garner support from a wider range of peers. However, this is not as straightforward as it should be. One may know what’s right and what they should do when faced with a decision, whether that decision carries a heavy moral burden or not. When the time comes to decide, their values and beliefs may not shine through. Max Bazerman and Ann Tenbrunsel, authors of Blind Spot, explained that one’s thoughts are dominated by how one wants to behave, but thoughts of actually following through may fade away.[2]


The discrepancy is between knowing what the right thing to do is and doing it. One who deceives oneself may know how to act but may behave in a contradictory fashion.[3] Their actions may run counter to their identity and self-awareness and towards self-deception. Even people who believe they are honest and would not lie or cheat their way out of a situation or into a position of influence do, in fact, lie and cheat when an easy opportunity presents itself.[4]


Cultural Acceptance of Dishonesty Complicates Things

Internal forces may be driving someone to lie and deceive others or themselves. Lying gives some a sense of power and pleasure. They may even come to enjoy lying and misleading others.[5] When external forces entice one to lie, cheat, and deceive, internal forces are enhanced. Deception can be condoned by an authority figure at work or in society,[6] making it seem more legitimate and even desirable to lie.


Followers See This Discrepancy

The goal of deceiving is to hide the deception, and practitioners will go to great lengths to hide their true intentions. Persuading others to follow them in action or belief is a key leadership strength. Hiding a lie under layers of positivity and positive communication is one way to obscure the truth and true motives. David Collinson of the Lancaster University Management School coined the metaphor “Prozac leadership.”[7] He described “Prozac Leadership” as painting overly optimistic scenarios to convince others of positive future prospects. In doing so, they intend to inspire and reassure followers in their leadership and chosen courses of action. This metaphor paints a picture of a society addicted to success and excessive positivity. It’s a method a leader uses to enact power and exert influence.


This positivity is emblematic of popular Western culture. Leaders practicing this style exude confidence and an air of authority. They inspire others to look to a bright future by constructing a vision that things will be better than they are today if they follow their leader. Collinson used the metaphor about Prozac to depict widespread social addiction to excessive positivity and how this method can resemble an addictive drug.[8] Being positive sends a message of strength and resilience in the face of a highly competitive and individualistic market society.


This style is so ingrained in Western society that it is rarely questioned. This method falls apart when subordinates see through the fog of excessive positivity. Followers can detect the inconsistencies between what a leader says and what they do.[9]


Training to Act Ethically

While a little white lie may not seem harmful, it’s the path one starts down that is the potential problem. One lie may lead to others, which may increase one’s comfort with the practice. Quantity of lies may grow as may the severity of the lies. The deceiver must lie to cover up other lies, and their attitude towards risk may soften.[10]


As Bazerman and Tenbrunsel pointed out, the more common lying becomes in one’s speech and actions, the more acceptable it becomes to them to behave unethically.[11] Organizations need to help their up-and-coming leaders refrain from immoral behavior. Leaders can be shown how to act ethically. Through training, leaders can come to embrace ethical practices more automatically, making leaders more resilient to challenging ethical dilemmas. In particular, leaders who possess a lower moral identity than others need self-regulatory resources to help them resist engaging in deviant leadership behaviors. Leaders high in moral identity are less affected by the constant challenges that cause moral depletion.[12]


Flowery speech and overly positive language and gestures may hide one’s true intent. Often though, followers can see through this. It serves a leader better if they speak from their heart and let their beliefs and values guide their behavior. It serves an organization better if there are mechanisms and processes in place to help and support leaders in their goal of acting ethically.


Observations

  • because a leader knows what’s right and ethical does not mean they will act accordingly

  • excessive positivity in a leader’s message may hide their true, nefarious intentions

  • one lie may lead to more lies and serve to increase a self-deceptive leader’s comfort with the practice

[1] Caldwell & Hayes (2016) [2] Bazerman & Tenbrunsel (2011) [3] Festinger (1962) [4] Bazerman & Tenbrunsel (2011) [5] Williams et al. (2009) [6] Brief et al. (2001) [7] Collinson (2012) [8] Collinson (2012) [9] Collinson (2012) [10] Fleming & Zyglidopoulos (2007) [11] Bazerman & Tenbrunsel (2011) [12] Joosten et al. (2014)

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