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Leaders are liars
There’s a tacit agreement in the corporate world that, once you step into the murky waters of “leadership,” you’re expected to lie. That is, to masquerade any inconvenient truth into a package that somehow progresses the organization’s agenda. This is exacerbated once an organization is big enough to attract “professional” leaders: people who’ve gotten so good at lying that they surf between corporations turning magically chaotic small teams into neutered machines of corporate sameness. The challenge of the corporate leader is to steer an organization through indirect nudges and motivate their followers by obfuscating the truth, also known as lying.
We’ve all seen it before: the leader stands on stage during the company’s yearly All Hands and exclaims how exciting everything is and how much progress the company has made since setting up to achieve their goals last year, then proceeds to turn to the next slide which indicates that the company has, in fact, not achieved its goals. The juxtaposition of the leaders statements with the facts is jarring, if you care about the truth… but most people don’t. Or rather, most people justify the absence of truth by regurgitating condescending axioms like “people need to feel inspired.” The irony of it all is that everyone is aware of the lie and justifies it as a necessary evil to maintain this adult day care we call being a professional.
Lying is also expected of non-leaders, of course, but more leeway is given to them because they’re on the path to leadership (read: not yet leaders). The lower you are in the corporate totem pole, the more tolerance is given to expressing inconvenient truths. This means that the choice (to whatever extent it is a choice) to advance in your corporate ladder tends to be a choice to leave behind the right to express inconvenient truths in favor of the goals of the organization and the benefits that come with your career progression (which, I’ll admit, can be enticing!).
If you find this hard to believe, listen carefully next time someone mentions the responsibilities attached to the word “senior” in a job title. For example, a designer can go out for drinks with their peers and surely spend a beer or multiple venting to their colleagues about their frustrations — there’s catharsis in the clarity of the “us” versus “them.” If someone in that group is a “leader,” they’re expected to turn that conversation into something productive. That is, something that advances the company’s agenda. Set aside your need to bond with other humans and instead use the opportunity to carry on the corporation’s agenda.
There’s a well-understood corporate agreement that preserving the company’s momentum is more valuable than directly examining its shortcomings. The latter requires slowing down and maybe even stopping (gasp!) and turning around. These shortcomings, when hidden in favor of a corporate agenda, is what I mean by “the truth.” But that’s the thing: in a corporate context, truth is not a priority. After all, a corporation itself is a lie.
To be a corporate worker means to suspend one’s disbelief in an environment built on many leaps of faith. It’s a sport, no more legitimate than any other sport, where the players have somehow convinced themselves that it’s important to put the ball in the hole. The sport serves a purpose, of course: it feeds your family, gives you status, a sense of purpose, something to do every day and, all things considered, it requires very little of you. Unlike other sports, the corporate player doesn’t train, they simply need to show up and believe. By believing they can mimic. By mimicking they can succeed. It’s quite simple if you
write think about it.
You might argue that this isn’t unique to corporations and it’s just called “growing up.” Adults often package the truth into palatable statements that are productive and advance some agenda, whether defined by a corporation or a personal need. Children, on the other hand, are reckless in their communication. They say what they mean with disregard for social norms and when in the presence of other adults, are asked to apologize and hide the truth. (I know nothing about children, I don’t know why I dug myself into this hole. Let me change the subject real quick!) The path to becoming an adult seems written in stone: believe. After all, societies are lies themselves. They’re strung together by made-up concepts we’ve all been nodding along for generations. This serves a purpose, of course: it feeds your family, gives you status, a sense of purpose, something to do every day and, all things considered, it requires very little of you.
Corporate lying serves to move forward the singular agenda of the corporation while pacifying dissenters. It asks its leaders to silence their own agendas in exchange for pay, status, and purpose. Leaders are not appointed due to their vision or wisdom (at least not primarily), rather it is the grace with which they wield the corporation’s agenda that grants them the authority to lead. This is perfectly fine unless the corporation’s agenda is unclear or worse even: going in the “wrong” direction, in which case its leaders are at best designated violinists in a sinking Titanic and at worse Rose watching Jack drown and freeze to death while floating comfortably on a door for two.
Who determines if the corporation is headed in the wrong direction? If you ask me, I’d say “everyone, all the time.” But that isn’t canon in the corporate doctrine. The answer seems to be: leaders. The same leaders who lie for a living to carry through a corporate agenda are the ones in charge of identifying whether that agenda is going in the wrong direction. The cost? Literally every single benefit that comes with leadership: pay, status, and purpose.
These systems —corporations, societies— are ouroborosly designed to reward those who perpetuate —not improve— them and as such all of them inevitably inch towards obsoletion. The fog of the post-modern man is designed to protect the delicate balance of these systems, all of which depend on each other.
I like to imagine a simpler definition of a company: a group of people with distinct roles who get together to solve a common problem. Even if problems multiply and permeate the group itself, the people are brought together to solve them.
In this hypothetical company, leaders are team members with a different skill than the rest of the group: not to wave their hands and pretend everything is fine, but to show the way to their followers by transparently sharing problems and intelligently finding solutions.
That’s a key component of an adequate leader: they must be more intelligent than their followers. That is to say: they must be more right, about more things, more often than the people they lead.
My ego and I have no problem following smarter people’s leadership. In fact, that sounds like a dream! But that hasn’t always been my experience encountering real world leaders. They seem to have grown accustomed to the idea that, in order to lead their team, one mustn’t share problems directly and honestly. Instead one must apply a degree of translation so that a team remains hopeful and inspired. God forbid the rest of the team has access to the same information they do! How could their fragile minds handle it?! It’s in this translation that the corporate leader loses trust on their team (and their team’s trust) and instead focuses on preserving the corporation itself over solving its problems.
I do wonder if it’s possible, you know? Can organizations—corporate or not—succeed with transparent and honest leaders? Or is it naive of me to expect the world to function that simply?
I suppose all I can do is my best to lead—as a designer (with arguable degrees of success), teacher, and father—in the ways I wish to follow.