In the context of leadership, hypocrisy is best understood as a failure to align your actions with your language. To use a simple example, if you expect everyone in your organisation to dress professionally but you wear shorts and a singlet yourself, you are being a hypocrite. This example is of course a bit extreme, but at some level, every instance of hypocrisy follows the same pattern, and differs only by degrees.
This is where you must be the most careful. It’s easy to spot when actions are grossly misaligned with expectations, but it’s in the many shades of grey that this kind of hypocrisy creeps further and further out of control.
If there’s anything that people are naturally built for, it’s detecting – and detesting – hypocrisy. There’s something innate about the distaste we harbour for people whose words don’t match their actions; most of us are taught from birth that lying is wrong and immoral, but the distinct flavour of hypocrisy is somehow different, and yet just as universally understood and derided.
As such, a leader must avoid hypocrisy like the plague. This seems self-evident, like trying to avoid lying or cheating or bullying – the problem is as easily understood as the name of the thing itself. However, I think that hypocrisy serves better as a signal than anything else. No leader in their right mind aims to be a hypocrite, but if you can investigate your leadership and your work with honest eyes, you might spot moments of hypocrisy. Nobody’s perfect, and problems inevitably slip through the cracks. But when hypocrisy crops up, it points towards much deeper issues.
Put simply, we should never expect anyone else to uphold a standard that we are not prepared to uphold ourselves. Though this seems logical enough, it gets much more complicated in an organisation, and especially a large one. Nobody in any organisation can do everything that the organisation needs to do; hence the need to be an organisation in the first place. People with certain skills are encouraged to lean into their strengths, even at the expense of other areas, to some degree. One of the primary benefits of belonging to a team is that the strength of one person can make up for the weakness of another, and vice versa.
The same is true of the leader. A leader’s responsibilities will, by definition, be different to those of the other members of the team. Priorities will also be different: the leader of an organisation needs to spend their time working on strategy and culture, rather than directly on sales, for example. Sometimes, the differences in a team’s responsibilities will be crystal clear, sometimes a little more complicated. This is natural. But what can be dangerous is the belief that certain members of a team not only do different jobs, but should be held to different standards.
The most extreme cases of this mentality are the executives with the enormous, corner offices who decide when they do and don’t feel like showing up in person, but will berate an employee who comes to work a couple of minutes late one day. The more subtle case is the leader who believes he or she doesn’t need to uphold the same dress standards as everybody else because they’re “in charge,” or somehow above the rules because they set them in the first place. That attitude is authoritarian, and relies on power and superiority at the expense of credibility.
The primary reason hypocrisy doesn’t work is because humans are so much more convincingly influenced by actions rather than by words. This is especially the case with our leaders, because we judge the credibility of a leader (or really, of any person) based on what they do. Many of history’s greatest leaders first paid their dues in the trenches:
American President Theodore Roosevelt was a war hero, historian and writer before he took office. Mahatma Gandhi began his nonviolent civil rights protests while living in South Africa, decades before India gained independence from British rule. When either of these leaders vocalised what they believed to be right or necessary, they had a long history of actions to support their claims.
This is not to say that you need external accolades or decades of experience in order to set expectations or standards. Instead, the above examples highlight that a leader’s credibility is founded on their actions. If you believe your organisation is lacking in discipline, you do not need to call upon a lifetime of evidence that you are disciplined. Instead, you simply need to demonstrate your own discipline now, if you expect the people around you to follow suit.
Inspiration comes from modelling the standards; this causes people to aspire to the same or higher. If I want people to keep a tidy work place, I must keep my own work place tidy.
When I was in the Air Force, I could never expect others to uphold high standards in their dress and bearing if I wasn’t first setting the example. Herein lies the reason that you should seek out hypocrisy as a warning signal for deeper problems: if you are not upholding the standards that you expect others to uphold, you do not fully believe in them.
To stay with the dress code example, if you are constantly asking other people to adjust the way they dress, but you do not uphold the same dress standards yourself, you need to assess why your own behaviour is not aligned with your words. Could it be that your organisation doesn’t actually need a dress code, or at least not one quite as formal? If this is the case, why then are you asking people to uphold such a standard? It may be that you are unconsciously mirroring the leadership style of people you’ve worked with in the past. Or, more dangerously, you’re simply telling others what to do because your ego wants to feel powerful. Either way, you’re not leading from a place of credibility, and that’s a problem.
On the other hand, it may be a more personal issue. Perhaps you do believe in the dress code, for example, but struggle to maintain the necessary self-discipline to adhere. If this is the case, you’re allowing yourself a level of freedom and special treatment that you aren’t affording to others. Whether you need to relax your standards for others, or have the discipline and humility to pull yourself into line, hypocrisy is a signal that some element of your belief system is askew. We must first believe in our standards to therefore aspire to achieving them.
Finally, remember that the real responsibility of a leader is to build a culture. It is ultimately not the job of a leader to enforce something like a dress code. This is an intervention, and though a leader must intervene from time to time, these instances should decrease in frequency over time. Likewise, your intervention should be expected, credible, and safe for others to experience. The more pressing task for you as a leader is to instil the idea that everyone within a given culture is responsible for upholding the standards of their cohort. This starts with belief: if you cannot demonstrate a legitimate belief in your standards, you cannot expect others to believe in them. If you truly believe in the standards you are upholding, however, and you then model the practices and behaviours you believe in, those around you will follow suit. In turn, the whole organisation comes to see the truth behind your words.
Never underestimate your influence as a leader in instances like these. If you don’t truly believe in something, don’t ask others to do it. If you cannot – or will not – do it yourself, don’t ask others to do it. If you do believe in what you’re asking of others, it should be more than reasonable to ask the same of yourself. Model the standards you believe in, and others will follow your lead. Remember: you cannot not influence.