Leading Ethically Only is an educational outreach of Leadership Ethics Online (LEO). Essays range widely--from ethical analysis of the news, to ethical challenges to leaders in society, to personal reflections of an ethical nature. We welcome your thoughts and criticisms to make us better.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Honesty With Yourself, Leadership, and Life

What is honesty?  Our U.S. military academies have a simple code of ethics:  "A cadet will not lie, cheat, or steal, or tolerate those who do."  This reminder of honesty is good, but has been insufficient to stop scandals of cheating on examinations over the years.  Yet, if we do not keep the standard before our eyes, if we do not allow the standard to challenge us, if we allow others' behaviors to inhibit or stop us from applying the standard to ourselves, we personally are destined to have problems.  Ethical standards lift us up, when we connect with them and let them shape us.

Honesty With Ourselves:  An Essential

Honesty with ourselves is essential for moral progress.  Now we can be, and often are, dishonest with other people.  They ask us in the hallway, as they approach with a big smile, "How are YOU today?"  We answer with a reciprocal smile, "Oh, FINE, and YOU?"  They chirp, "GREAT!  See ya later!"  We did not tell them our mother was dying.  We did not tell them our child was arrested.  We did not tell them our head hurts from too much alcohol the night before.  We responded dishonestly because we know the question was dishonest to begin with.  The entire exchange was a social courtesy, actually meaningless.

Now life is filled with small, medium, and large moments of dishonesty.  The question is--regardless of what habits we have adopted from others--"Am I honest with myself, in my deepest thoughts about myself?"
If we are not honest with ourselves, in the silence of our mental world, we are immoral people.  The Bible, in both the Hebrew scriptures and New Testament, contains the command, "Love your neighbor as yourself."  To be dishonest with ourselves is to hate ourselves.  If we cannot be honest in looking at ourselves--our strengths and weaknesses, our areas of goodness and harmfulness, where we feel good about ourselves and areas where we need immediate and long-term change, there is little hope for us until we decide to become honest.

Habits Affect Our Capacity for Honesty

Those familiar with the Nazi regime may remember "The Big Lie" philosophy.  It goes like this, "Tell a lie enough times until it becomes the truth."  Repetition conditions our view of reality.  This also applies to honesty, and our personal self-honesty or self-dishonesty.  It is possible, therefore, for us to repeat self-deceptions enough times until we come to believe them.  We see this in criminal and psychiatric cases all the time.  People can, over time, rationalize, compensate, and "fool themselves" that whatever they have thought, said, or done, it is "good, moral, honest, and true."

So habit is a powerful force in being honest with ourselves.  We must practice honesty with ourselves every day, even when it hurts to admit what we see.  Then, as we embrace honesty more and more, honesty becomes our very nature.  Repetition conditions us to become honest with ourselves.

Unfortunately, our habits of association--the people who are are friends or those we choose to spend non-employment time with--reinforce, or detract from, our habits of honesty or dishonesty.  If we "hang out" with people who are liars, or who do bad things and are proud of them, their social influence affects our private, personal journey towards personal honesty.  Our conversations with them are "repetitions of habit" for us.  If they are saying, doing, encouraging, or demanding, that we join them in some unethical or immoral plans or activity, then we either must be honest in criticism and rejection of the matters, or we must cut off associations like these, for our own good.

Be Honest, Starting Today

To be honest with you (!), sometimes being completely honest with ourselves can HURT.  Have you ever thought about a past event, one where you used to blame someone else, then had it occur to you, like a flash of lightning, "I now see how I was responsible!"  This hurts in many ways.  We see our fault.  We see all that time we incorrectly blamed someone else.  We have spent conversations and even actions reflecting our "confident self-justifications."  But when we see something new and different, our question is, "What must I DO WITH THIS?"

To be honest--after such an insight--means accepting responsibility.  It means stopping all habits of self-justification.  It means, likely, going to some people and saying, "I take my part in the blame" or "I now see I was mainly (or even, completely) responsible" and "I ask your forgiveness."

So, Dear Reader, these are only a few thoughts about personal honesty.  There are many more, and all are as important as these first thoughts.  As I close, remember these thoughts.

Whatever our past history of relative honesty or dishonesty, once we make our personal commitment to (1) be honest; (2) reinforce honesty in all areas of our lives; (3) accept truth and consequences whenever they appear, regardless of whether we really like them or not; then, (4) every day we live, we become better people, family members, employers and employees, and citizens.

Let's be honest with ourselves.  Then the rest will become easier and easier!

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