In the days of Ancient Greece, when the armies of the Greeks were about to destroy Troy, there lived a girl called Cassandra.
She was a special girl. As well as being beautiful and a king’s daughter, she was a prophetess in Troy. Not surprisingly for those days, such a combination of beauty and talent attracted the attention of a top executive. In this case, it was the god Apollo.
Apollo wanted to be her mentor. At least, he wanted her. Then as now, alpha males, especially the Greek gods, often have some earthy notions about beautiful young women. She resisted. And when he got too pressing, she told a pack of lies as a way out.
Apollo was the god of truth.
Being typically vindictive when he didn’t get his own way (not unlike many top executives today) he cursed Cassandra. From then one, every prophecy she made would be completely true…but no one would believe her. She would have to foresee every disaster—including her own murder—and be helpless to prevent them.
That’s what happens when you resort to lying to get out of a tough situation. You forfeit your credibility. Once the lie is discovered (and they nearly always are), no one will believe you again.
Integrity seems a small thing, especially when times are tough and holding onto it seems to promise nothing but misery and failure. Like the god Apollo, the people who rule our working lives aren’t always fair or ethical. Cassandra didn’t deserve to be faced with the choice of telling the truth—and being trapped into unwanted sex with the top guy—or lying to escape. It wasn’t a fair choice. But that’s the way the world is sometimes.
Hopefully none of you will ever have to face such a dreadful situation. but milder versions of the same dilemma are frequent. The figures were calculated wrongly. Do I own up—or say they’re correct and hope no one notices? A customer’s complaint is valid, but will cost money to put right and embarrass the business. Do we acknowledge the error—or stonewall and wait until the customer gives in?
It’s so tempting to tell a few minor lies and walk away from the problem. Maybe you’ll even be praised for saving the business a few dollars. And it will be so inconvenient to have to face the truth and sort it out.
There’s always a price. Cassandra sacrificed her integrity to save her herself from sex she didn’t want. It wasn’t a choice she should have had to face. Apollo’s revenge was out of all proportion. That’s how it is with stories. They dramatize to make a point. Yet the basic conclusion remains worth thinking about; lying your way out of trouble often causes far greater harm. Integrity is worth more than you may think.
Adrian Savage is an Englishman and a retired business executive who lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his serious thoughts most days at Slow Leadership, the site for anyone who wants to bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership; and his crazier ones at The Coyote Within.