Why Do Great Leaders Lie?
(This post originally appeared on Inc.)
On September 4, 1941 an American ship, the Greer, was attacked by a German submarine. The incident, among others, added to a list of growing animosity between the U.S. and Germany during that time which finally resulted in war between the two countries.
In his “fireside chat” delivered over the radio to the American public a week later, President Roosevelt blamed Germany for the attack, saying “The Greer was flying the American flag. Her identity as an American ship was unmistakable. She was then and there attacked by a submarine. Germany admits that it was a German submarine. The submarine deliberately fired a torpedo at the Greer, followed by another torpedo attack. In spite of what Hitler’s propaganda bureau has invented, and in spite of what any American obstructionist organization may prefer to believe, I tell you the blunt fact that the German submarine fired first upon this American destroyer without warning, and with the deliberate design to sink her.”
Roosevelt was lying.
Subsequent investigations found that the American ship was working with the British. The ship’s orders were to trail the sub and communicate to a British airplane its position. The ship’s orders, like other ships in the area, were to give the British information of any German submarine’s position. The Greer even dropped depth-charges to determine the sub’s location. Provoked, the German submarine fired a missile at the ship, which luckily missed.
Why did Roosevelt lie about this incident? For one he didn’t want the Germans (and the world) to know that the U.S. – at the time still a neutral party in the war – was providing this kind of assistance to Germany’s enemy. Roosevelt also knew full well the growing Nazi threat to world peace and believed in his heart that America would need to go to war with Germany to end this threat. He wanted to do everything he could to push the normally isolationist American public towards engaging in this war. And he know an incident like this would help fuel the fire and justify his cause. He was right. America was at war with Germany just a few months later.
Stories like this are common throughout history. A Greek King fools the Trojans with a wooden gift horse. An American President denies the existence of a spy plane even after it’s been shot down over Russia. A Russian leader denies the presence of missiles in Cuba even though they’re photographed by satellite. A politician promises to clean up “red tape.” A football coach promises to “win it all.” An airline pilot assures his passengers of “a smooth flight” ahead.
They don’t know this stuff for sure. Instead, they deceive. And it’s OK. Leaders lie. Good leaders lie too. They have their reasons. Not all of them are the right ones. But some are.
If you’re a good leader at some point you’re going to have to lie. You’ll need to tell a customer that you’ll deliver the product or service on time, even though you’re not entirely sure you can. You’ll tell your partners that business is doing well and things are right on track, even though it isn’t and they aren’t. You’ll tell an employee that she’s going to do a great job on a project, even though you have your doubts. You’ll assure everyone that the new product line is going to be a huge benefit to the business while you have your fingers crossed behind your back.
Like Roosevelt, your job as a leader is to point your people in the direction you believe is right for them and the company. And then plow forward in that direction, regardless of the challenges that are thrown in your path. You know that things aren’t always going to go right. You know that there will be setbacks. But your people need encouragement and assurances that they’re doing the right thing by following you. They want you to make promises. They crave to hear the confidence in your voice.
There’s a fine line between deception and truth that you’ll have to walk. But every great leader has walked this line before. So yes, you can lie. As long as you believe in your heart that the end justifies the means.