White Lies or Damned Lies!?

Dec. 21, 2004
Are They Ever Justified?

George Washington was a liar. He lied when he was asked, "George, did you cut down the cherry tree?" His answer: "I cannot tell a lie! Yes, I cut down the tree." Now, I don't know for a fact if George cut down the tree or not. I don't even know if there was a cherry tree. What I don't believe about this famous story is that George never told a lie. George Washington was a gentleman. Gentlemen always lie. It's the sugar they apply in social situations when they compliment a friend on a particularly unflattering new suit. It's the honey they serve up when they are courting a woman, or telling a joke on themselves, or exaggerating a story to get a laugh. George Washington was an army officer. I served in the U.S. Army for four years. Every army officer I ever knew lied at some time or another. They had to. They lie when they need to motivate fatigued field soldiers . . . or when they are protecting a military secret . . . or when they compliment the mess sergeant . . . or when they need hard-to-come-by logistical support from politicians. George Washington was a politician. Every politician I know lies. If they told the truth, they would never be elected. George Washington was a chief executive. Every chief executive I know lies. If they didn't, the media would know all their company secrets, mergers and acquisitions would be jeopardized, and employee confidence would be destroyed. In the minds of many, a lie is a lie is a lie--for which there is no honorable reason or purpose. But there's a big difference between an innocent lie and a damned lie. How do you distinguish a social lie from a damned lie? Like the man said when his son asked, "Is a ton of coal very much, Dad?" "It depends, Billy, on whether you are shoveling it, or buying it." Is it really a lie when a butcher's wife tells her friends that her husband is a liver, brain, and lung specialist? Perhaps it depends on whether she's talking to butchers' wives or doctors' wives. Telling lies is natural--at times even necessary. Oftentimes a lie is a social lubricant. Sometimes it is a deception to achieve a noble or critical objective. And sometimes it is inexcusable. Are FBI and CIA agents lying when they conduct covert activities? Yes. Are newspaper reporters lying when they go undercover to expose a racket? Yes. Is a chief executive lying when he says "no" to employee queries about a rumor that his company is planning a significant action like downsizing, or reengineering, or moving its headquarters location, even though a plan is in the works? Yes. Are these examples white lies, innocent lies, or deceitful whoppers? It depends on who is making the evaluation. A friend confided in me that he couldn't trust his wife. "Why not?" I asked. "She didn't come home last night. When I asked her where she was, she told me she spent the night with her sister Carol." "What makes you think she didn't?" I asked. "I know, because I spent the night with her sister Carol." Now that's a whopper. In the CEO's opinion, some lies are necessary. Premature exposure will cause irreparable damage. His competition will use the information against his company. His employees will panic. The shareholders will shake, rattle, an roll. The investment bankers will overreact. To the employee, it's a whopper, particularly if his or her job is in jeopardy. To the investment community, it is an unforgivable sin if the impending action is a negative rather than a positive one. To the shareholders, it's a wait-on-see call, depending on what happens as a result of the action. It may be praiseworthy, or it may be executive suicide. To be acceptable, a socially responsible deceit must be "deceitfully" disguised. It must be called by an acceptable name: A sting. An exposure. A clandestine operation. A secret mission. Digging for the truth. A necessary expedient for preventing a more serious or damaging result. If there's any doubt, just remember George Washington.

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