Early on during my first tour at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, I was introduced to a monthly blood-letting known as the Logistics Readiness Council (LRC). Chaired by the one-star Assistant Division Commander for Support, or ADC-S, the LRC was a division-wide readiness forum that consumed most of an afternoon. Leaders from across the 101st Airborne Division would brief readiness statuses, address logistics issues, and explain persistent maintenance challenges. If you had a key piece of equipment “deadlined” for more than 30 days, you were assured an opportunity to discuss it with the ADC-S.

Omission or Outright: Lying is Not the Answer

As a maintenance officer, I had the distinct pleasure of attending the LRC on a regular basis. On most months, I was able to sit and watch the others in the room sweat profusely as they rationalized away one problem after another. On months I had to take my turn in the readiness guillotine, my leadership made it perfectly clear that I was expected to tell the truth, even if I got “scuffed up a bit” in the process. “If you lie to the ‘-S’, you’re out of a job,” my battalion commander told me on more than one occasion. It was one thing to make an honest mistake; it was another to lie about it. “Take your lumps and get it over with.”

A decade later, in the same conference center on the same installation, a different ADC-S turned one afternoon to ask my commander a question about a piece of equipment that had been “down” since we returned from a training center rotation. The 30-day clock had expired; another unit under his command tasked to perform the repairs had failed to do so. The necessary repair parts were on hand and the repair personnel were available, but the unit had simply failed to prioritize the repair. The lack of urgency was going to be a problem and the explanation would likely result in someone getting “scuffed up a bit.”

Instead, my commander turned to me and said, “Maybe you’d like to explain this one.” Every eye in the room turned to me. This wasn’t my problem to explain. He knew full well what had happened. He knew that someone else was responsible for this mess. But he wasn’t about to incur the wrath of the general. He put both hands on my back and threw me under the bus. I stood up, drew a breath, and received the full brunt of the general’s tirade. Thoroughly scuffed, I returned to my seat as the ADC-S leaned over to my commander and muttered something to the effect of needing to find better help.

It was a lie by omission – he hid the truth of the situation from the general and allowed me to take the fall for something I had no control over – but it was still a lie. As much of a lie as any I had heard before. Not all that different than the elaborate lies I had heard over the years whenever anyone didn’t want to admit the true state of readiness in their organizations. He could have told the truth that day – uncomfortable as it might have been – but chose not to. Instead, he deflected, and I was the one left with bus tracks across my back.

Why People Lie

Why people lie has always been a matter worthy of discussion. In their landmark study, “Lying to Ourselves”, published by the U.S. Army War College in 2015, Leonard Wong and Stephen Gerras explored in depth the prevalence of dishonestly in the profession of arms. But lying is common in all professions. In 2013, a Michigan judge was removed from the bench for lying under oath. In 2014, a Detroit-area oncologist lost his medical license after years of lying to his patients about unnecessary cancer treatments. In 2015, NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams was suspended after the network learned that he had lied on at least three occasions. So, why do people lie?

1. To avoid a negative outcome.

From the time we’re children, this is the most common reason we lie. We do so to avoid disappointing someone, dealing with an angry confrontation, or facing punishment. It’s also a time-tested way to dodge responsibility and is the calling card of the risk averse. In the case of the example I described initially, a simple lie of omission diverted the negative outcome from my commander to me. Success achieved. For him, losing my respect was less of a consequence than angering the general.

2. To achieve a positive outcome.

This is often a case of wanting something to be true so badly that it overrides the need to tell the actual truth. Exaggerate your achievements on your resume? Add a few extra push-ups on PT test? Misrepresent yourself during a job interview? All of these can lead to positive outcomes… as long as the lies are not revealed. While most of understand lying to avoid a negative outcome, doing so to gain a positive outcome is considered an especially egregious form of cheating. You didn’t earn that streamer; you lied to get it.

3. To influence a decision.

This is the classic case of lying to get someone to do what you want them to do. Lying to your boss to get a favorable decision. Lying to a customer about a product so they will buy it. Lying to investors so they will increase their financial commitments. This might be an effective tactic in the short term, but you’re left hoping that the truth is never revealed.

4. To avoid awkwardness.

There are times when you lie just because the truth would be a lot more uncomfortable. For example, someone asking, “Isn’t my baby cute?”, when it looks more like Yoda than a human. Or, “Do you like my haircut?”, when someone looks like they stuck their head in a food processor. In the same vein, dishonest flattery falls under this category. Telling someone you like their outfit even though it looks like your mom’s old shower curtain. We do this because we don’t want to disappoint people or because we want them to like us, not out of any darker sense of deceit.

5. To keep the lie going.

Lies have a tendency to snowball on you. Once you start telling them, you have two choices: come clean and face the consequences or keep telling them in bigger and better ways. How many times have you watched a sitcom where someone buried themselves in an impossible web of lies? It happens in real life. It happens a lot. The solution to this is often referred to as The Law of Holes – if you find yourself stuck in a hole, stop digging.

Earn Trust with the Truth

In “Lying to Ourselves”, Wong and Gerras noted that it “takes remarkable courage and candor” for us to admit our own shortcomings. Telling the truth can be difficult at times, but our own integrity is at stake. Trust is something that’s earned, not given, and we remember those who lie to us long after their lies fade into memory. And the consequences of telling those lies far outweigh the experience of getting “scuffed up a bit.” Take your lumps and get it over with. You’ll be a better person for it.

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.