Hypocritical Leaders

A recent NY Times column with the provocative title, “The Real Problem with Hypocrisy,” makes the counter-intuitive claim that the trouble with hypocrisy is not, as many of us believed, a “failure of will or a weakness of character.” No, the real problem with hypocrisy, according to new psychological research, is that it comes with the unspoken assumption that the “hypocrite” falsely insinuates his or her own moral virtue. “The principal offense of a hypocrite is not that he violates his own principles, but rather that his use of moral proclamations falsely implies that he behaves morally.”

What if no such implications were present? Indeed, according to the researchers, individuals who make no pretense about their own personal practice, those, for example, who say the functional equivalent of, “I think it’s morally wrong to do x, but I sometimes do it anyway,” are judged far more positively than so-called “traditional hypocrites.”

There is an important lesson for leaders in this finding. As the last presidential race made clear, accusations of hypocrisy often result in a torrent of mendacity when politicians and their surrogates rush to explain or deny disreputable behaviors. The same is true in the corporate world and the social sector.

The Talmud has a different approach to this issue of hypocrisy in leadership. “One should not appoint anyone administrator of a community,” taught the rabbis, “unless he carries a basket of reptiles on his back (i.e. something reprehensible in his background). So that if he becomes arrogant, one can tell him turn around.” Here, the rabbis raise the prospect that, not only are leaders far from perfect, but their fallibility may actually be an asset.  

To be sure, the sages do not seek to elevate miscreants to positions of power. Ethical lapses, hypocrisy, and lying are all deplorable. But as long as our leaders are human, these things come with the territory. To expect leaders not to have a “basket of reptiles” on their back is to set a standard that is destined to disappoint. In our quest for perfect leaders, we encourage perfidy. As John W Gardner in his book On Leadership cautioned, “A citizenry that wants to be lied to will have liars for leaders.”

What the Times article and the Talmud suggest is that a leader who ‘owns’ his imperfections, who acknowledges her flaws, is a leader many can relate to. Apologizing for missteps is far from a sign of weakness, it is a sign of humanity. When leaders do nothing to disabuse their followers of false notions, and when their words signal a saintliness that is far from the truth, they disappoint and disillusion. The damage they do to their own reputations by sanctimony is much greater than had they modulated expectations from the start.

We will (and we should) continue to recoil at the hypocrisy of our leaders. But along the way, expectations need to be recalibrated. Leaders can manage the unreasonable standards others set for them by acknowledging their own basket of reptiles, and avoiding the self-righteousness that often accompanies moralism. As for the rest of us, we need to remember that elevating leaders to quasi-divine status is a guarantee we will be disappointed just as soon as they prove themselves to be human.

Hal Lewis

Read more of Dr. Lewis' writings on leadership at leadershipforimpact.com/blog.