A Few Words on Lying

Geoff Smith Portrait

BY Geoff Smith


“The worst thing you can be is a liar. Okay, fine, yes, the worst thing you can be is a Nazi, but then number two is a liar. Nazi one, liar two.”

— Justin Halpern’s Father, in ‘Sh*t My Father Says’

Of course, we all teach our children that we are not just morally obliged to tell the truth at every moment, it is a straightforward practical necessity. Once you have lost your reputation for honesty, you might as well go live in Bhutan.


EllisDon’s Mississauga office was built by our main competitor, which is doubly embarrassing for me, since I was member of our presentation team during the competition. Part way through that presentation, the client asked our proposed Project Manager what he thought of the construction schedule that they required, and our PM answered very honestly that it wasn’t achievable. Sitting there, I thought I might punch that PM right in the face. I believe it was that deadly sincere honesty cost us the job and I was pretty irate: Why would he give that answer? (Of course, I have no idea what our competitor thought or said).

Certainly, most clients in those circumstances want to hear the truth. But not always, and in this business you have to have your wits about you. Sometimes people want to hear the opposite of the truth, for their own reasons. Sometimes, the people in control insist on hearing what they want to hear, and you ignore them at your company’s peril. In another situation, I was instructed beforehand by our prospective client to “dodge the schedule issue during the interview, we’ll solve it later”. He wanted us to win, but had been ‘overly optimistic’ with his own boss in order to get the project approved. In other words, sometimes in this life, being somewhat economical with the cold hard facts of the matter is the only rational alternative. You can get as self-righteous as you like, but we have all found ourselves in these situations once or twice, and we have all fallen just short of being a Nazi.

I call those ‘necessary lies’. (So: Even though we all agree it is a terrible thing to lie, you can see that I’ve developed various classifications.) Another example of necessary lying is the kind that politicians do.

I’m inclined to let politicians off the hook for the lies they tell during a campaign. After all, if they told us the truth, we would never elect them. We all know that’s the case, and yet we continue to force them to lie in order to win our vote, and then we get upset later on when it turns out they were lying. It’s not their fault, it’s our own. They were taking the only rational option we presented to them: They told necessary lies to save their careers.

The other classification is ‘virtuous lies’, which I created for myself about twenty years ago.

It is no secret – I’ve mentioned it often – that EllisDon suffered a severe cash flow crisis in the mid-nineties. It was a two year struggle to save the company. Did I always tell the truth during this period? Hell, if failing to tell the truth is the same as lying, then I made it an art form. We ducked, we bobbed, we wove. It so happened that the most critical time of this crisis occurred in the weeks before Christmas, and I went to all the parties and made speeches that were overly sunny, to put it mildly. On one Monday morning, at perhaps the very bottom, my Executive Assistant told me with great excitement that over one hundred children had come out to the ‘Kid’s Christmas Party’ the day before. For some reason, that was just too much, and I went into my office and just stared at the ceiling for a long time, wondering if I’d lost my soul. Of course, we got through, and if I found myself in the same position again, I’d do the exact same thing.

Some people tell me that in their view, trust has to be earned. I prefer the opposite approach. I think you have a better life if you give people the benefit of the doubt from the start, and trust them implicitly until they betray that trust by lying. Then of course they are done, forever.

But now I also think it’s a good idea to ask yourself two questions when you find that someone has lied to you. Did you, practically speaking, create a situation where they realistically had no other option? Or, alternatively, did their own personal circumstances leave them no choice (In other words, were you in their shoes, would you have done the same thing)?

In other words, perhaps ‘Did he lie?’ and ‘Is he a liar?’ are not exactly the same question. It’s a complicated world, with blurry edges.

At least we are not Nazis. Thanks for reading.