Why Politicians Lie
This blog post was featured in the Huffington Post on June 27, 2016.
I’m sure you have heard accusations that politicians lie, or don’t tell the whole truth. Politicians say that about each other. Back in 1952, Adlai Stevenson said it in a campaign speech: “I offered my opponents a deal: if they stop telling lies about me, I will stop telling the truth about them.”
Today Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton are being criticized for skirting the truth. Clinton’s image that she cannot be trusted has become a serious impediment to her campaign.
The theme of lying politicians is not exclusive to the USA. In the fifty-two countries I have worked, I hear the same complaint: “We cannot trust our leaders. They are evasive. They hold back from telling us the truth, etc.” (In this piece I am not referring to the corruption many leaders are accused of; that discussion should be forthcoming in another post.)
So why is it a global phenomenon that politicians lie?
Because they have to.
I got this insight from working with prime ministers and presidents of various countries, while at the same time working with CEOs of very large companies. Leaders of major conglomerates and of countries exhibit very similar leadership styles: They are evasive, play their cards very close to the vest and do not share information if they can help it. They use big words to obscure their real intentions. They often “lie,” skirt the truth, too.
The higher you ascend up the hierarchy, the more political the environment becomes. Those you are interrelating with have their own interests—be they personal, or of the unit they manage—and there is a struggle between all these interests. As a leader you have to maneuver between all these pressure groups and powerful individuals, and survive the maneuvering.
If you are truthful about your intentions and make them known, you are giving information to those who want to unseat you, who want you to lose so they can gain. You lose the capability to maneuver politically.
It would be like a military leader making his battle plans known to the enemy during a war. And folks, up there in the organizational hierarchy, whether of a country or a corporation, it is a war.
Do you know who Frank Lorenzo was? Years ago he bought Eastern Airlines and Braniff Airlines, and was trying to build the biggest airline in the world. The airline unions fought him tooth and nail and he lost it all. I asked him what his biggest mistake was. His answer: “ I made it known what I was going to do.” ( He intended to cut down the labor force. )
I was told by a member of Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet that when discussing a sensitive subject in one-on-one meetings with another cabinet member, he often does not say yes or no to the proposed strategy. He shakes his head left and right for no, or up and down for yes, but does not utter a word. Why? Because he suspects he is being recorded by someone who does not necessarily have his interests at heart. Or of the country for that matter. . There could be microphones that he does not know about. By not saying a word he can deny he ever made that decision.
In more than one case, a leader of a country or a CEO of a company has asked me to stop talking and has taken me outside somewhere, sometimes for a ride in a car, so we can talk without being overheard. In many countries the entry to a chief executive’s office is through double doors, each padded heavily with soundproofing material to block voices from passing through.
The more democratic the system, the more lying there will be. In a democracy a leader has to make difficult maneuvers in a politically competitive environment. That is what democracy is about.
In a democracy in order to get power or to stay in power a politician needs to lie about his or her intentions , needs to maneuver and disorient enemies from the opposition and frequently from his own party or has to keep his or her mouth shut and keep a straight face although there is much to say.
Politicians have a personality that allows them to be evasive, to live with lies and keep a straight face. Not all people can do that. That is why many people are not willing to serve in a political role. They detest the process they will have to follow, a process I believe is an inevitable byproduct of the political system we chose to have.
Ichak Kalderon Adizes