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Is Honesty a Relative Concept? (By Pepper de Callier)

In working with people as a coach for more than thirty years and in being a student of human nature for more than fifty years, I have been very fortunate and at times perplexed.  Fortunate, in that I have been exposed to a number of situations, perspectives, personalities, problems, issues and thoughts from a wide range of people, but perplexed in the sense that I have found that absolutes—things that are always true—as they relate to life and to human nature are extremely hard to find.  And, as human beings, I think most of us are comfortable with high levels of predictability in our lives, absolutes being the highest level.

Over the years, however, I have found the concept of absolutism to be a barrier in many cases to understanding ourselves as well as others, both of which are extremely important to a leader, or leader-to-be.  Absolutes become even more complicated and difficult to identify when you consider the cross-cultural aspects of globalization, i.e., what is always polite, what is always rude?

In order to understand ourselves and others, especially in today’s world, we must develop our sense of judgment and understanding as it relates to specific situations versus making general statements that may impact our opinions and the opinions and actions of others in unintended and inaccurate ways.  Regular readers of this column know that I use the word “wisdom” at times to describe what I feel is the most important driver in today’s world of business—the ability to not only identify key issues, but to understand them in the context of everyone involved.

So, in the interest of stimulating discussion that will lead to a better understanding, I will pose the question to you: “Is honesty, as it relates to being virtuous and “good”, a relative concept?”

This is not a new discussion, by the way.  It was a favorite topic of debate going back at least to the 5th century BCE.  In his excellent book, The Trial of Socrates, I.F. Stone framed the discussion splendidly.  Here is a passage, which is a particular favorite of mine on this topic: “Socrates would surely agree that telling the truth is certainly basic to virtue: A liar is not a virtuous man.  But is this always so?  Can circumstances never alter even this basic proposition?  Suppose you have a friend dying in a hospital who wonders why his beloved wife has not come to visit him in his final hours.  Which is virtuous: to tell the poor fellow the full truth—that she has run off with her handsome chauffeur? Or soothe his mournful last hours with a sedative fiction?  This is an extreme example, but extreme examples—as Socrates well knew—destroy perfect [absolute] definitions”

Here’s another example: Suppose you, as my boss, just came back from a meeting with your boss in which you were ordered to fire me.  You honestly felt that your boss did not have all the facts, but you knew that the timing was wrong to try and present them to him.  You were, however, determined to fight this by presenting some compelling information to him that you felt would get him to reverse his decision. You also knew that I just took out a huge mortgage to buy a new house and that my wife was six months pregnant with our first child. There are many thoughts racing through your head as you return from this meeting and encounter me in the hallway.  Knowing that one of the topics of your meeting with your boss was my future, I anxiously ask you how things went.  Do you, in all honesty, tell me that you have been ordered to fire me?  Or, knowing that you plan to fight this with all your might, do you, as I.F. Stone would say, provide a sedative fiction, like, “We really didn’t have enough time to get to this.  He was called in to another meeting, but we are going to meet very soon to go over this and I’ll let you know as soon as I know something?”

One course of action would create untold anxiety and probably irreparable damage to one’s motivation and feeling of security with this job, and the other, while not true, buys time in order for you, my boss, my leader, to fight this battle on my behalf, hoping to prevail and not damage my attitude, my feeling of security, my peace of mind and that of my pregnant wife.

Is this a “slippery slope” to more dishonesty in the future?  Is honesty a relative concept?

Please let me know your thoughts.  I will share some responses from readers in a future column.

Good luck on your way up!

About the Author: Pepper de Callier is one of the most respected senior executive coaches and authorities on leadership in Europe. Learn more about him at