Self-Deception and Honesty in Leadership

Dear Colleague,

Self-deception versus honesty in leadership.  The world, especially the business world, lays enough ammo at our doorstep to flatten even the strongest leaders, the heartiest of team players.

So how many business leaders seriously consider their shortcomings, acknowledge blind spots, or throw light on those hidden levels of self-deception with an honest and unbiased eye?

How much self-delusion do we allow because being self-critical (or honest) erodes our confidence and self-esteem?  Is this why we end up blaming difficult customers, an unreasonable boss, soft market conditions, an unsupportive family, or, easiest of all, just placing the blame on our less-than-stellar team members?

Here are some examples and ideas on how to be more of the real thing, as a leader, a team mate, and a contributor in your world.


As we look around corporate America, we find examples of leaders who have fallen due to self-deception. Carly Fioroni, former CEO of HP, was in many ways a great communicator and leader. She did an amazing turn around at Lucent and was well regarded and highly recommended when she took over at HP.  In her tenure at HP, she was decisive, stuck to her guns, and created a strategy to restructure a company that was viewed as backward thinking, not forward thinking.

But by most accounts, she deceived herself into thinking that execution would naturally follow a stellar strategy.  Despite repeated prompting by her senior team and warnings by board members for her to appoint a strong COO, the execution was taken for granted.  As with many business leaders before her, she fell victim to believing that a great strategy, well communicated, would do the trick.  But without a detailed, hands-on, operations- driven COO to balance a big picture, charismatic CEO, companies falter and revenues decline.

So what can we learn from this? What’s the cautionary tale for us to take away?

The best team members and leaders have a deep, profound understanding of self.  They know what they can handle successfully and when they are in over their heads. They partner with or hire those with complementary skillsets to fill in the blanks.  They have realized the essence of self-deception: believing we can do it all, impeccably.

In James Kouzes and Barry Posner’s leadership study, which spans four decades, the characteristics of admired leaders has remained the same.  Honesty is still the #1 characteristic that people want in their leader.  Over 88% of the thousands of business people polled indicated this quality as the most important of all leadership qualities.

Honesty is described by these authors as being truthful, having integrity, being trustworthy, and having character.  Inherent in this is honesty with self.

In honesty with self, strengths are identified and expanded.  This is where we make our mark, add our greatest contributions, and leave a legacy.  We do our best work where we are naturally hard-wired because these areas give us the energy and confidence to make significant contributions.

In honesty with self, leaders or team members are willing to admit and address weaknesses and challenges.  Then other talented individuals are brought in to do the equally important and complementary heavy lifting, whether it is in analysis, creative thinking, relationship building, or execution of strategy.

One of the reasons that most executive coaching firms use assessment instruments in consulting is the power they have to provide self-knowledge.  The Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI), the Myers-Briggs Step II, and the Hogan Leadership Forecast Series are among the over 5,000 assessment tools available to corporations.  We have found, in our coaching practice, that the good ones provide a rich and accurate foundation for personal and professional development.

The following 4 recommendations will create self-awareness and lead to more honest and open relationships:

  1. In a comfortable, non-confrontational setting, ask for feedback from your direct supervisor and/or several peers (or your significant other) on any negative impact that you may have on them and your co-workers.  Keep your body language open and your expression receptive and non-defensive.  Don’t make statements, just ask questions and be willing to listen.
  2. Keep a journal.  It is amazing how self-revealing we become in our personal writing. Start with just 10 to 15 minutes of self-reflection and honest assessment each day. After a month, look for patterns and potential break-throughs.
  3. Put yourself in unfamiliar situations and untested waters.  Evaluate your natural responses. Do you take over? Do you step back? Do you ask questions? Do you sneak out? Do you make excuses?  Do you excessively compete?  Do you listen and learn?
  4. If you haven’t taken any assessment instruments,  select several, one that is brain-based,  one that is personality-based, and one that identifies derailers, and have them debriefed.  Then use them to have meaningful conversations with the significant people in your life.

To loop back to the Kouzes and Posner study, you may be wondering what the least important leadership characteristic is. Under the banner of honesty and full disclosure, the characteristic that Kouzes and Posner found to be the least admired was being Independent, at 6%.  I guess this means that the majority of us sincerely enjoy working together as teams and that we want our leaders to be part of, not apart from, us.

Susan sig