Trust Your Engineer’s Ethical Compass, Don’t Lead by Deceit or Dishonesty

June 8, 2016

This guest column is by David Lutz, P.E., M.ASCE, manager of the geotechnical and tunneling group for the southwest U.S. for WSP|Parsons Brinckerhoff in Dallas, TX.

Imagine being at a new job on your first day, and the HR representative said, “Welcome to Company XYZ, we have found that the best leaders lie to their employees regularly, and are generally untrustworthy. Of course, this is a great company, where you can grow as a professional.” I imagine you might want to find the nearest exit.

“Most leadership advice isn’t realistic,” read a headline that jumped out at me recently for an article on a new book, Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time, by Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor of organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Shockingly, Pfeffer believes leadership advisers should not encourage leaders to “be trustworthy and authentic, serve others (particularly those who work for and with you), be modest, and exhibit empathetic understand and emotional intelligence.”

On the contrary, I found myself thinking that I would very much like to be that kind of leader. However, according to Pfeffer from his book, “there is little evidence that any of these recommendations have had a positive impact.” I would counter that based on my experience and the experience of many, there is indeed evidence that such leadership has had an enormously positive impact. I will get back to this topic shortly.

Lying, Deceitful Leaders

But first let’s examine Pfeffer’s suggestions. In his book, Pfeffer states, “…the ability to lie can be very useful for getting ahead. Skill at manipulation is a foundation of social power.” Followed by “The powerful deceive more often, and the ability to deceive effectively creates social power.” Now, I am not so naïve as to believe that people cannot get ahead and obtain power by lying – aren’t those typical goals of lying? But is that what we, as engineers, want to promote within and beyond our profession? Such actions would be at odds with the fundamentals of engineering ethics. Encouraging leaders to be dishonest is clearly not endorsed by the engineering profession, nor should it be by any profession.

Additionally, Pfeffer says that executives are better off being “usefully inauthentic.” He even “laments the leadership training industry’s call for “authentic” leaders in his book”. He writes, “Leaders don’t need to be true to themselves; in fact, being authentic is the opposite of what they should do.” As I read this I am deeply disappointed that such views are espoused by those in our country’s leading universities, especially those teaching future leaders. Again, there is no doubt that being inauthentic and lying can benefit the dishonest– but it is not the view that should be promoted in business – or academia, for that matter.

Settling for Less than Desirable Leadership

The article continues with, “In the end, says Pfeffer, we would all be better off accepting that our leaders are generally not truthful, authentic, modest, or trustworthy, largely the opposite of the message we get from the popular motivational leadership stories we hear.” Again, if that is the type of leadership you see in your organization, my advice would be to find another place of employment. How long will it be before such leaders use their untruthfulness against you? Such leadership sounds like it is straight from the pages of Brave New World.

Part of Pfeffer’s premise, referring to the motivational leadership industry, is that “The fundamental problem with this industry is the disconnect between what we say we want from our leaders and how they actually manage organizations.” I agree with Pfeffer on this point. It is not surprising that many leaders don’t follow basic tenets of good leadership. He laments the fact that we tend to hold up exceptional leaders that have impressive impacts on the companies they manage, while such rare cases are virtually mythological. He continued, “The leadership industry gives people want they want, he says. We want nice stories, so that’s what we get.”

I completely agree that leadership is more than simply “nice stories”, but that by no means should result in the pendulum swinging to the other side such that we either ask for or settle for dishonest, untrustworthy leaders. At the risk of sounding self-righteous, we are better than that – we should raise the bar with regard to our expectations of our leaders.

Real-World Leadership Experience

Getting back to the assertion that there is little evidence that striving for leaders to exhibit positive qualities has had a positive impact. I encourage each reader to test that statement for themselves. I would venture that a great majority of ASCE members have had one or more supervisors or leaders who have indeed had a positive impact on their lives, professionally and/or personally. Moreover, these leaders likely impact you because they exhibited characteristics of being truthful, authentic, modest or trustworthy.

We, as members of ASCE, are fortunate to work in an industry where high ethical standards are expected, not simply hoped for. As such, we should be ready and willing to uphold those standards that have served us so well for over 150 years – and sometimes even push back against ideas of leadership that are counter to what we know to be true.

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