Nixon’s Smoking Gun: Is Lying a Necessary Leadership Skill?

By Shannon Gazze

On June 17th, 1972, five burglars broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington D.C.  In 2020, we now know they were there at the behest of President Richard M. Nixon based on information obtained from DNC phone taps by G. Gordon Liddy’s Committee to Re-Elect President Nixon.  We know this, in part, because the president ordered his own Oval Office bugged a year earlier, and those tapes and transcripts of cover-up strategy eventually got into the hands of federal investigators.  The cover-up, as we also now know, leads to the downfall of a prominent leader more often than direct evidence of a crime or scandal.  The “smoking gun” in Nixon’s case was about 18½ minutes of conversation that his assistant had “accidentally erased” from the Oval Office tapes.  When transcripts were finally revealed, the people of the United States found their elected leader candidly discussing a Watergate cover-up.  He resigned three days later.

Nixon was named in the indictment of the “Watergate Seven” as an unindicted co-conspirator.  Our president stood in front of the cameras and knowingly lied with the same conviction and charisma that he used to ascend to such a high position of power and popularity in the first place.  He was not the first to do this, and he certainly would not be the last.  Lying convincingly to the public, at first blush, seems to be a necessary evil for a leader as prominent as the U.S. President – a tool in the belt that, although it may lead to the feeling of dirty hands and even to scandal if the lie is revealed, is nonetheless wielded at various times in the public life of a statesman.  But is it?  On the spectra of honesty and transparency, are there lines that must never be crossed?  If so, where do they lie? (no pun intended).  Are lies of commission worse than lies of omission?  In what circumstances?  These are some of the ethical concerns for practical leadership that are difficult to discuss and quantify.

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Most scholars will agree that complete transparency and honesty from a nation’s leader is generally not advisable.  First, from a national security standpoint, anything made known to the domestic public is also available to the nation’s enemies and competitors around the world.  It is the leader’s duty to strive to protect the basic freedom and safety of the nation’s citizens, so complete honesty and transparency in all dealings can work directly against that directive.  Second, it is also imperative for a leader to maintain an effective ability to lead as long as she or he is in charge.  To assume that every one of our personal actions will be judged at all times as forthright, honest, fair, and befitting a leader by everyone who observes them, with or without context, is a foolhardy notion.  Thus, a leader must go to some lengths to protect private conversations, actions, transactions, and mistakes from public scrutiny, lest they are used against the leader to usurp her or his title or referent power.  Taken to its extreme, leaders injected with permanent truth serum or harnessed indefinitely with Wonder Woman’s magic lasso would not be very effective or long-tenured leaders whether or not they were ethical people.  With privacy laws what they are today, these truth-spilling leaders probably wouldn’t even be able to clear the lowest ethical bar of legality.

Admitting that 100% truth and transparency from a leader does not, as a rule, support long-term effective leadership provides some critical early momentum on the way to uncovering the truth about lying in leadership, but there is no obvious path between a prudent vail over some of a leader’s more sensitive “activities of daily leading” and the need to lie directly and convincingly to the public.  For the next step, let us consider the implications of picking an appropriate level of honesty and transparency on a few of the leadership styles for which integrity and ethics are integral.  Two that come to mind immediately are Robert Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership and James Burns’ Transforming Leadership.  Both represent ideals in leadership style that the authors believed would benefit humankind should they become widely adopted.

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Professor Joanne Ciulla dedicates her book, Ethics: The Heart of Leadership, to Burns as his theory of Transforming Leadership rests on the ongoing moral relationship among leaders and those who follow.  She states that ethics lies at the heart of all ideal working relationships because both parties morally elevate each other toward common purposes and values, thus empowering each other to create change that benefits both parties as well as improves the lives of those around them (Ciulla, 2014, p. 16-17).  Her book – a collection of various authors’ views on moral and ethical leadership – explores the boundaries and moral pitfalls of ethical leadership at a depth this short reflection cannot duplicate.  Its major theme is that the morality of a person, the means by which she or he chooses to lead, and the value of her or his accomplishments are all subject at some level to the vagaries of each individual situation, context, and relationship involved.  To complicate matters further, at times a successful leader is considered ethical in some of these situations and not in others.  So how does a leader who strives to practice Servant Leadership or Transforming Leadership deal with these ethical dilemmas?  A better understanding of these two leadership styles and their relationship to the basics of ethical leadership is required to answer this question, but the basic response that emerges from Ciulla’s book is something along the lines of, “It’s complicated.”

A common ground among most ethical styles of leadership is established in the research.  Brown and Treviño (2006, p. 579) observe a link between ethical perceptions and a leader’s characteristics of being honest, fair, and trustworthy as well as possessing integrity and having altruistic motivation.  The authors cite two key foundational theories that explain how ethical leaders are created and how they influence organizations: Social learning theory and social exchange theory.  The former asserts that people learn by observing and emulating the attitudes and values of attractive and credible models.  The latter describes the relationship wherein employees come to value the ethical behavior of leaders because it adds stability and value to their own efforts and self-efficacy.  When ethical leaders consistently show that following the ethical behaviors they model will be rewarded, there is an inherent quid pro quo relationship that directly relates to employee loyalty, satisfaction, and self-worth (p. 607).

Brown and Treviño (p, 600-601) also state that if an employee has seen or been influenced by ethical leaders, they are more likely to develop ethical leadership characteristics of their own.  Other researchers suggest social identity theory also has a role in the dynamics of ethical leader-follower relationships, implying that, not only do people tend to exhibit behavior similar to their ethical models and derive value from those relationships, but the ethical nature of the organization becomes a stronger part of their own personal identity (Walumbwa et al., 2011, p. 17).  When it comes to Servant Leadership, these social theories are reflected to various degrees in the tenets of Greenleaf’s original 1970 thesis, The Servant as Leader: Be a servant first; follow only other servants; be willing to lead, one action at a time; do not abuse authority; accept, empathize and persuade.  Greenleaf developed the idea for his essay after reading about Leo, the protagonist in Herman Hesse’s novel, Journey to the East.  Greenleaf writes that a servant is who you are “deep down inside” (2009, p. 9).  Leading is something you choose to do when a social situation calls for a leader.  As is common among ethical leadership styles, both the qualities and the actions of a leader are equally important.

Seeking to advance servant leadership theoretically and empirically, Eva and colleagues (2019) recently searched the literature (hundreds of studies in all) to answer these questions: How is servant leadership is defined, understood, and measured?; What have we learned from the research?; What do we still need to know?  The authors develop a composite definition based on the motive, mode, and mindset of would-be servant leaders: “Servant leadership is an other-oriented approach to leadership manifested through one-on-one prioritizing of follower individual needs and interests and outward reorienting of their concern for self towards concern for others within the organization and the larger community,” (p. 114).  The ideal application of servant leadership, according to Eva and colleagues, will create a culture that indirectly influences positive organizational outcomes.  While the servant leader focuses on empowering and serving followers, those followers grow closer to full potential.  The followers learn to handle tasks and decisions on their own and become ready to lead themselves.  Through all these interactions, the stakeholders and communities within reach of the leader and followers are well-served.

Greenleaf eloquently presents the simple idea that society’s ability to tackle its biggest problems for the benefit of the most stakeholders depends on the existence of people whose primary motive is to utilize their strengths and abilities to serve their fellow humans.  It then requires those servants to choose to take on leadership roles and engage with those they wish to serve.  He adds that, when it comes time to follow others, these same leaders should seek out other servants to follow, thus creating a virtuous cycle.  But in his essay, Greenleaf hits an ethical snag.  He admits that there is “no way” to distinguish with certainty between true servants and those that are less authentic (p. 43).

This uncertainty is no small issue.  It means the validity of the findings of hundreds of researchers are linked to a subjective and historical account of whether or not what the researchers observed was truly servant leadership.  The hindsight of history through the lens of its observers is left as the de facto arbiter of whether the ideal is met.  If the actions of the leader and what is known publicly of her or his moral character match up well enough with Greenleaf’s tenets, that leader can be touted as a servant leader who met the ideals.  If the leader was caught in a lie that caused personal and professional disgrace, she or he would not likely receive the servant leadership seal of approval.  If the leader subtly and convincingly lied, obfuscated the truth, or misdirected the public’s attention to get away with minor indiscretions or moral failings, the servant leader mantle might still be magnanimously applied.

Burns’ concept of the transforming leader is similar in many ways to Greenleaf’s servant leader, including its lack of answers for the types of moral dilemmas explored by Ciulla.  In Chapter 5 of his second book on Transforming Leadership, Burns raises up a historical case study of his ideals in James Madison and fellow contributors to the founding U.S. documents (2003, p. 77-89).  His description of the leadership displayed by Madison includes four core components of Transforming Leadership as identified by Bass & Avolio (1994): Idealized influence, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, and individualized consideration.  Madison and his colleagues stuck to their ideals as a constant influence to get the amendments considered and passed in Congress; they inspired the first Congress to act; they stimulated full and ranging intellectual debate over idealistic and practical concerns; they considered the interests of individuals.  By doing so, the collective leadership of the time transcended expected outcomes to achieve a document in the Bill of Rights that outlived and surpassed all reasonable expectations.  There is no prominent evidence Madison lied directly in public during his effort to pass the Bill of Rights, but there is strong circumstantial evidence that he “played the political game” necessary to survive and thrive in Congressional leadership that included careful strategy surrounding transactional relationships with colleagues and political battles of words, discretion, and indiscretions regarding his political enemies.

In short, the exemplary case of Madison’s transforming leadership does not exclude the possibility (if not a likelihood) that dirty hands were at times necessary to achieve it.  If moral failures occurred in any of the three areas Ciulla explores (means, personal integrity, or value of the ends), then history has generally forgiven Madison of these misdeeds and credited him with a crowning achievement of modern government.  The theoretical foibles of the founding fathers may not rise to the level of Nixon’s missteps amid the Watergate scandal, but since they were playing the same political game, they are likely in the same ballpark as the arguably impeachable actions of Nixon and fellow U.S. presidents Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump.

Returning to the subject of Nixon’s place in history following the discovery of the “smoking gun” evidence, it seems clear that public discrediting of the president played a large role in the resulting difference in average perceptions of the leader before and after that moment.  In 1982, Robert Meadows conducted a systematic review of children’s impressions of Watergate based on their level of political maturity, demographics, and exposure to mass media.  Although the study was more important for its findings regarding social maturity and the power of mass media, it also serves as validation that the evidence revealing the president knowingly deceived the public played a larger factor in his loss of stature than did the fact that he (and presumably countless other politicians) actively worked behind the scenes to subvert truth and transparency throughout his tenure in public office.  In Ciulla’s terminology, the latter often results in dirty hands while the former often results in resignation.

Meadows notes that studies conducted before Nixon resigned indicated that children – even mature children with high levels of information received from mass media – had an idealized view of the president and his contributions to the work of the government overall.  In an early post-Watergate period, children continued to idealize their perceptions of the president, but to a lesser extent.  By 1974, amid increasingly damning evidence, studies indicated that children had a much more negative view of Nixon’s contributions to government.  Meadows further reports, “The more children knew about Watergate through their use of the news, the more critical they were of the President” (1982, p. 550).  This is consistent with studies of young voters, whose confidence in Nixon steadily declined between 1972 and 1974.  When compared with children sampled in 1962, children a little more than a decade later were more cynical and more likely to reject presidential authority in general.  However, students with less news information were still more likely to retain an image of a potent, benevolent leader in the White House.

Meadows concludes his study by remarking that “The greatest dangers to the political system itself exist when distaste for the executive is generalized to the government as a whole. Clearly, the President plays a key role in shaping attitudes toward the system. Yet it is only his performance as reported in the mass media that govern public responses to his behavior.” (1982, p. 551).  Meadows recognizes the significance that even children can lose confidence in their national leaders if they see them as liars.  If there is a necessity in public office to avoid 100% honesty and transparency in order to maintain power and effectiveness, yet also a need to keep up public perceptions, then there is apparently a lot on the line every time even a “little white lie” is uttered.  Perhaps the significance of a lie is that it is a morality flaw involving both the character of the person and her or his actions.  Nixon, for what it’s worth, chose the right replacement after his former Vice President, Spiro Agnew, resigned.  Gerald Ford pardoned the former president in 1974.

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With both candidates for the 2020 presidential elections standing accused of personal misconduct of a sexual nature, it seems extremely relevant to continue to explore exactly what we expect to know and what we expect not to know regarding our national leaders.  Ethical approaches to leadership including Servant Leadership and Transforming Leadership may have empirical validity regarding their effects on organizational performance and the well-being of citizens, but research into the practical and theoretical limits of ethical leadership regarding truth and transparency will always be a necessary companion to empirical studies.  We need to know how to best frame our own thoughts, actions, and expectations when the next national leader inevitably looks into the camera, smiles, and assures us that she or he is telling the unequivocal, indisputable, undeniable, absolute, honest truth.



Bass, B.M. and Avolio, B.J. (1994), “Transformational leadership and organizational culture”, International Journal of Public Administration, Vol. 17 No. 3, pp. 541‐52.

Brown, M. E., & Treviño, L. K. (2006). Ethical leadership: A review and future directions. The Leadership Quarterly, 17(6), 595-616.

Burns, James McGregor (2003). Transforming Leadership: A New Pursuit of Happiness. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.

Ciulla, J. B. (Ed.). (2014). Ethics, the Heart of Leadership. ABC-CLIO.

Eva, N., Robin, M., Sendjaya, S., van Dierendonck, D., & Liden, R. C. (2019). Servant Leadership: A systematic review and call for future research. The Leadership Quarterly, 30(1), 111–132.

Greenleaf, R.K. (2008). The Servant as Leader. Atlanta: Robert K. Greenleaf Center, 9-48.

Meadow, R. G. (1982). Information and Maturation in Children’s Evaluation of Government Leadership During Watergate. Western Political Quarterly35(4), 539-553.

Walumbwa, F. O., Mayer, D. M., Wang, P., Wang, H., Workman, K., & Christensen, A. L. (2011).  Linking ethical leadership to employee performance: The roles of leader–member exchange, self-efficacy, and organizational identification. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 115(2), 204-213.

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