I frequently speak to groups on such topics as leadership and business ethics, and if there is a common thread connecting effective leadership and ethical behavior, it lies in the element of trustworthiness. To be sure, a large part of gaining (and then keeping) the trust of others is formed over time by a leader’s reliable, habitual truthfulness. Good leaders don’t lie. Great leaders rarely even fudge the truth. And as a result, the truly great leaders are far more often also the most ethical.
Disturbingly, it seems now that the prevailing pattern among many of our highest-profile people in politics, sports, and journalism, among others of cultural influence, is reliable, habitual untruthfulness. How did we get to this point? And what impact will it have on our young adults and children? What are the consequences of constantly exposing young people to the shallowness and rank dishonesty of our presidents and congressmen and women, our steroid-inflated sports heroes, and a shadowy media that now often chooses to report based largely upon its own agenda? Will they care about societal norms and personal integrity? Or will they seek to emulate the powerful? The famous? The cool?
This can’t be healthy. I often wonder what went with our high standards. How could our society have set the bar so low that now there seems little outrage or surprise when some self-important official tells a whopper with a perfectly straight face, and everybody knows it?
So many people lie with impunity nowadays, sometimes under oath and on matters ranging from national security to healthcare to economic news, that the American populace has grown continuously more skeptical and cynical. At some point it won’t be easy to govern an otherwise rational people who have come to believe very little of what they hear or don’t see for themselves, as if a tipping point has been reached. This isn’t North Korea. Those poor people have no vote to change their government; they have no choice about reinforcing standards for those who govern; they have no arms with which to protect themselves against tyranny. Americans have all three.
I’m not so naïve as to think that lying is some new Digital Age phenomenon. And I realize that good people sometimes fabricate or distort to save their own hides. St. Peter denied Jesus thrice with his lies, but he recovered nicely and went on to have a positive influence, I’d say. We are all fallible people, of course. And most of us feel remorse when we lie to or deceive others, or in some way act dishonorably.
But some of us don’t. Some among us would rather climb a tree and tell a lie than stand on the ground and tell the truth. And the longer we tolerate such people and their behavior, the more we become complicit in allowing our institutions and systems to become so compromised that they eventually rot and collapse. If moral bankruptcy is our destiny, then we as free citizens have only ourselves to blame. Not Washington. Not Hollywood. Not Wall Street.
It’s time for Main Street to awaken. What does that mean, you ask? Throwing the bums out? Term limits? Jail terms for perjury? Electing courageous leaders with integrity, not slick con artists or amateurs? Ethics rules with teeth? Stiff penalties for ethics violations? Stiff penalties for those who fail to enforce stiff penalties for ethics violations? Running dishonest execs out of business?
Let’s get busy, Main Street.