Do Presidents Lie?

How are great liars and great leaders alike?

Posted Sep 20, 2009

I'm flying at 30,000 feet and reading my friend, Robert Feldman's excellent new book, "The Liar in Your Life," a book about lies and deception in everyday life. Bob makes the point that being socially skilled and sophisticated, in both children and adults, is associated with ability to lie successfully. Taking into account the recent accusatory outburst on the Senate floor from Congressman Joe Wilson that President Obama was lying about aspects of his health care plan reminded me of the very interesting connection that exists between effective leadership and effective lying. As you can imagine, however, it's complicated.

Lying successfully involves skill in self-presentation and impression management. Research suggests that the successful liar has to choose words carefully to make the lie plausible. Nonverbal cues must also be monitored and carefully controlled: speaking clearly and fluently, without hesitations, pauses, and suspicion-arousing "ums" and "uhs;" maintaining eye contact, appearing poised and confident, and maintaining a generally pleasant expression (without appearing to engage in what Paul Ekman, terms "duping delight" - the smile the liar sometimes emits when realizing that he or she is ‘pulling one over" on the unsuspecting audience). This sort of presentation is what our research and others' work suggests leads to more believability.

In short, successful deception is all about skilled social performance. But much of leadership, particularly the "public" aspects of leadership involve the very same social skills that are involved in lying successfully. To be successful, the liar, and the leader, must create the impression of forthrightness and confidence. A stumbling, faltering performance leads the audience to suspect the liar and to lose faith in the leader.

Two critical social skills seem to connect the effective liar and the effective leader: What I call Social Expressiveness (a combination of verbal fluency and self-presentational skill) and Social Control (sophisticated social acting skill). Combined these two social skills represents what is commonly termed "savoir-faire." That is the connection. In very early research, we discovered that people with savoir-faire were more successful liars. Our current research is showing that persons possessing savoir-faire are more likely to be selected for leadership positions, and they are more successful leaders.

So, do presidents (and other national leaders) lie? Of course. The main premise of Feldman's book is that we all lie, and lie more frequently than we think. But most often these lies are inconsequential - what we call the "little white lies" ("Your new hairstyle is fabulous!") that make up part of the social fabric of everyday life.

The larger issue is about integrity. Does a president have the ability to lie, and to lie successfully? Yes. Our research suggests that leaders don't get to be leaders unless they possess the same sophisticated social skills that allow liars to get away with lying. But leaders who lie, particularly to their constituents, and particularly when those lies have important consequences, can lose support, and their effectiveness. Consider our last two Presidents: The leadership of both George Bush and Bill Clinton suffered when much of the public believed that each had committed lies in the invasion of Iraq and the Monica Lewinsky incident, respectively.

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