Since writing “When Leaders Lie”, I was reminded of one of my first encounters with the temptation to “lie” as a young leader and I thought I’d share.

By John Gonzales

Well, if touching nerves and spurring discussion is one of the desired outcomes when writing an opinion piece, I accomplished at least that much with publication of “When Leaders Lie”. Most of the responses (via email, messaging, etc.) conveyed similar experiences and observations and came from individuals both inside and outside of our industry. A few former colleagues even candidly asked if I was referencing them in the piece. Surprising to me was the level of self-reflection it seemed to generate. Since writing this, and engaging in several discussions about the topic, it has done the same for me.  

I was reminded of one of my first encounters with the temptation to “lie” as a young leader and I thought I’d share.

Two decades ago I was given the opportunity to grow into an Executive Director position by a very hard, controlling and demanding owner. As unpleasant as this relationship was for me, I was taught more about business and leadership from this individual than any other person I have worked for since. Often times, it was a lesson in what type of leader I did not want to be.

I vividly remember the scalding conversations I routinely had with him about occupancy, financial performance, quality of services, the physical plant, etc. He was prone to fire individuals based on how long he was left on hold, if his eggs were undercooked at breakfast, or if the limo driver parked too close to the curb. He led by fear and intimidation, and as unjust as many of his decisions seemed to be, I was always tasked with executing them.   

One routine day I was running around my community tending to residents, staff and ensuring the wheels of service were spinning smoothly. I remember walking into the administrative area and having my recently hired receptionist immediately tell me that “he” was on the line and was angrily asking why I had not yet sent in our daily occupancy and sales report – I was 15 minutes late and I knew this wasn’t going to be a pleasant conversation.

As I walked into my office, I asked my receptionist to, “Tell him I’m not in my office,” in a desperate effort to buy time to get the report together and send it to him. My receptionist was young and kind – albeit a bit naive in the ways of business – and simply told me, “You’re standing right here.”

“I know I am, but I need some time to put the report together, so just tell him I’m not in my office right now, and you’ll tell me that he called when I get back”

“I won’t lie for you, you’re standing right here. Maybe you should tell him yourself.”

Now, I’ve always considered myself an honest man of integrity – even during this stage of my life, but hearing this from a newly hired – and youthful – direct report cut me to the quick. It was such a small thing, wasn’t it?  Everyone does it, don’t they? Yes, I wound up taking the call, and it was as unpleasant as I had expected, but that day I had an epiphany. As a leader, I was setting an example, I was establishing precedent and I was defining what is acceptable and what is not in the workplace by my words and actions. Asking my receptionist to tell a lie – even a small one – affected our work environment and community’s culture.

A few months later I was reassigned to run another community in the portfolio, but I remember receiving a call from our VP of Operations who was running the community I’d just left. He wanted to know what was wrong with the receptionist; she was refusing to follow his directions. I asked what she had refused to do, and he told me that she wouldn’t tell the owner what he’d asked her to. I asked if what he’d asked her to say was true – and of course – it wasn’t.

I think he wanted her gone, but how do you terminate someone for being too honest?

I learned a valuable lesson about leadership from that receptionist. A lesson that would continue to shape the kind of leader I would be in the years to come . . . the kind of leader I still strive to be.  

Oh, by the way – whatever happened to that receptionist? I’ve been married to her for 25 years, and yes, she’s still teaching me valuable lessons.