Unethical Leadership: Beliefs of Convenience

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Sometimes leaders believe things that aren’t true because they haven’t taken time to investigate the truth. In other cases, they may have trusted someone who has misled them. But there’s an even more problematic reason some leaders may ignore the truth – claiming to believe the falsehood may benefit them in a tangible way.

“There is no such thing as ‘alternative information.’ However, when important information is withheld or if the information is false, it can lead to alternative interpretations. And that’s where you can get into big trouble.”

Jesse Lyn Stoner on Leadership, Give Me the Facts, Just the Facts, Seapoint Center For Collaborative Leadership

Watch for leaders sharing a falsehood that is a “belief of convenience,” which is a type of unethical leadership. It is unethical for multiple reasons. It is intentionally misleading instead of transparent, is based on an ulterior motive, and has the potential to harm.

Ways that believing and/or sharing a falsehood publicly could benefit a leader:

  • Convey a false sense of control in a seemingly uncontrollable or negative situation
  • Advance an unethical agenda
  • Get something from gullible followers who want to believe the falsehood
  • Offer an advantage when regular approaches aren’t working
  • Distract attention away from other more harmful actions

Watch for these signs that a falsehood is benefiting a leader in a tangible way:

  1. The falsehood is shared in ways that stoke anger in the leader’s followers
  2. The leader continues to promote the falsehood after being confronted with clear evidence that the belief is false
  3. Sharing the false belief has the potential to harm
  4. The leader backs down from the falsehood when it has run its course of advantage and becomes a liability

“A liar begins with making falsehood appear like truth, and ends with making truth itself appear like falsehood.”

William Shenstone, Poet, in Essays on Men and Manners

What’s missing when leaders latch onto and share beliefs of convenience? Values. In contrast, ethical leaders know that it’s their job to keep ethical values at the center of their decisions and actions. Ethical leaders seek the truth, and communicate the truth, even when it isn’t convenient.

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