With Martin G. Moore

Episode #191

Are You a Hypocritical Leader? You may be surprised

Many leaders inadvertently behave in a hypocritical way when they take a “do as I say, not as I do” approach. Sometimes, this is the result of a deep sense of entitlement in senior leaders, who are quite happy to set a standard for their people that they have no intention of observing themselves.

But many of us are simply oblivious to our own behaviors, and we aren’t in tune with what other people see. We genuinely think that we’re behaving in accordance with the standards we set for our team, but often this is no more than a breathtaking lack of self-awareness… and we use rationalization as a crutch.

This episode explores why it’s easy, even with the best intent, to sometimes come across as being hypocritical.

How do you keep yourself honest, and what can you do to reduce the likelihood that your people will brand you as a hypocritical leader?

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Episode #191 Are You a Hypocritical Leader? You may be surprised

Since the publication of my book, No Bullsh!t Leadership, I’ve written a number of articles for Harvard Business Review – I think I’m almost a regular contributor now! But one of my favorites is an earlier article that was a little lower profile. It was published in CEO Magazine in the US about six months ago, and it was titled ‘Hypocritical Leaders Make Poor Leaders’. In this article, I explored the trap that many leaders fall into when they take the approach of “Do as I say, not as I do.”

Sometimes, this is the inevitable consequence of their sense of entitlement, and they don’t seem to have any qualms in setting a standard for their people that they have no intention of observing themselves. But many of us are simply oblivious to our own behaviors and we aren’t in tune with what other people see. We genuinely think that we are behaving in accordance with the standards we set for our team, but often this is no more than a breathtaking lack of self-awareness. Now as humans, we find it easy to rationalize and very few hypocritical leaders would even recognise, let alone admit to their own hypocrisy. So today I’m going to:

  • Tee off with a few stories of hypocrisy that struck me as being really obvious during my corporate career.

  • Give you a few ideas of the types of things that are most likely to bring out your hypocritical tendencies.

  • Finish with some suggestions for how to keep yourself honest and not become a lead your people despise.

So let’s get into it.

Over the years, I’ve seen an incredible number of hypocritical acts in the world of business – as I’m sure you have too. But hey, it’s my podcast! So I get to have the fun of telling a few stories about some of the worst cases. Of course, I’ve changed the names and some of the details protect the guilty, but you’ll get the gist of it.


One of my favorites is the hypocrisy that goes hand in hand with a leader’s remuneration. There is no faster way to bring self interest to the forefront of someone’s thinking than to hit them in the hip pocket, and I’ve seen a number of variations on this theme.

The first example is the classic of the CEO and or CFO who fiddles the books to make the results look better than they actually are. Now, remember, bonuses are often calculated on predetermined financial hurdles, and sometimes it becomes obvious that one of these hurdles isn’t going to be met. So what happens? Questions start being asked like:

  • What if we don’t book these expenses until after the end of the year, will that make our profitability look better?

  • Can we exclude this item from our underlying numbers by reclassifying it as a one off cost?

  • Can we bring forward some of the revenue from this contract, even though we’re not signing until after the end of the financial year?

In one of the greatest corporate frauds of all time, Enron used the accounting trickery of mark to market accounting to hide massive losses and recategorize them as profits. Now, this is not unusual, but the severity of this behavior is generally on a continuum. On one end of the range, the behavior would probably be classified as a little naughty, but on the other end of the range, it would be clearly immoral, illegal and fraudulent. Wherever it lies on the spectrum, one thing is for sure: your people see what you’re doing and they judge you accordingly.

Now, it’s not quite as bad if your clearly stated approach is to say “We pursue any and all means necessary to make sure we’re rewarded for our efforts and get paid our bonuses.” At least the words and actions would match! But more commonly these manipulations are sold to the organization as being entirely routine and appropriate.

The only problem is that often on one hand, you say “Nothing to see here, people.” But on the other hand, you hold up the corporate value of integrity. Almost every leader I know says that one of their strongest values is integrity. Yeah, right! So everyone sees the at and works out. You’re actually just a massive hypocrite.


The second example I want to raise is one that’s absolutely rife in our virtue-signaling world. Many companies take a very public stance on gender diversity. They like to tell the world how much they’re doing to address the obvious imbalance that has compounded over the years for female employees. I have seen Chief Executives, Chief HR Officers and Boards of Directors alike, publicizing how important gender diversity is to the organization, while internally, presiding over obviously sexist policies. And in the worst case, not protecting women who are harassed, disadvantaged, and abused.

We often see companies that on one hand, have very public targets and quotas for female representation. Yet on the other hand, are more than happy to sweep sexual harassment cases under the carpet, using payouts, deeds of agreement and harsh orders to keep the incidents out of public eye. We see other companies making it incredibly difficult for women to return to the workforce and have some continuity of career after they take time out to have a family. Now, I’d be crazy to suggest there’d be no impact at all on your career if you take several years out for any reason, but some policies are more likely than others to minimize this impact. We also see some companies that on one hand sing from the rooftops about gender equity, while on the other hand, allowing a significant and measurable gender pay gap to persist.

So where does this all fall down? Well, somewhere up the top, there’s generally a leader who doesn’t really want to know what’s going on a few levels down the line, and when it comes to making difficult choices, they just hope that no one really notices. Gender pay gaps can be fixed quickly and easily, but it costs money to do it – and of course, there’s all the men who will cry foul: “Why does she get a pay rise or not me?” Rather than fronting the Board with the actual cost of leveling the pay gap, it’s often easier for a Chief Executive to say, “We recognise that this is a really big problem and we are committed to solving it. But it’s not that easy, and it’s going to take some time.”

Pigs ass! With a gender pay gap, you could solve it in a week if you were serious, and a month if you dragged your feet every step of the way. Instead, most of the women, and many of the men, see you paying lip service to gender equity, and that behavior is hypocritical.


Now, I could go into so many other examples:

  • Executives who expect all their leaders to go through a 360 degree feedback process, who aren’t willing to subject themselves to the same level of scrutiny.

  • Leaders who jump all over you, if you miss a deadline – but when they don’t deliver something that was their accountability, they blame everyone except themselves.

  • And my favorite, leaders who espouse the rules and procedures of safe working, then do something different when they think no one is watching.

Once your people have you pegged as a hypocrite, it’s 10 times harder to get them to do anything you say.


What’s most likely to bring out your hypocritical tendencies? There’s a very important principle here that needs to be explored: Why do situations arise where you think you’re doing everything right but your people think you’re a hypocrite?

Crucially, there’s the question of intent

Other people judge you simply by your actions, but you have the benefit of knowing the intent behind your actions. And it’s easy to overlay your intent and to rationalize your behavior based on that, rather than the much less forgiving lens of what actions you took.

Let’s look at one of those previous examples: in the scenario where an Executive wanted one of the leaders reporting to her to undertake a 360 degree feedback process, but didn’t want to be involved in it herself. Well, maybe the intent was not to avoid the scrutiny of the process at all – but for a different reason altogether. Perhaps she knew that she would most likely be participating in a formal 360 degree feedback process later that year as part of a CEO succession planning program. She couldn’t say anything about the program because she hadn’t formally been accepted into it yet. But her intent was to do it at a later date, and she didn’t want to burden the people providing feedback by asking them to do it twice within a short timeframe. Without some sort of communication, this just seems like she’s being a hypocrite  – and we’ll come back to this one shortly.

When there are gaps between our intent and our actions, we like to wallpaper over those cracks with rationalization. Let me give you a few translations for how these tend to play out in our heads. If we make a decision that’s at odds with our principles, we often put the power in the hands of an external force – for example, cooking the books to show more favorable financial performance that has actually been achieved. We rationalize this by saying to ourselves:

I had no choice. I would’ve preferred to do things the right way, but the Board put pressure on me to hit the targets. And if we had to downgrade our earnings forecast, the share price may also have dropped. I did it for the good of the company’s shareholders.”

Or, let’s say we have a corporate safety policy of not jaywalking, we only cross the road at designated crosswalks. You may decide to not follow this rule at some point and rationalize by saying to yourself, “We have to have the policy for the majority of the people, but I understand risk management really well. And I’ve already assessed the risk of crossing the road at this location, so I know it’s safe.” If someone sees you cross the road against the rules, they don’t think you’re a better risk assessor than they are – they just think you’re a hypocrite. Now you get the drift, right?


Let me give you a few things that are likely to be going through your head immediately before you do something that other people will judge to be hypocritical:

“I’ll just…” 

These words normally come at the point immediately before you take a shortcut that you probably shouldn’t take.

“I don’t have a choice.”

This is a sure sign that you’re about to excuse the action you’re going to take by blaming some external force. Although this might enable you to preserve your own self image, it’s not necessarily going to preserve your reputation when other people observe your actions.

“I would, but…” 

This type of statement generally relates to the obstacles that stop you from doing what you know you should. The things that would align your intent with your actions, for example, “I intend to have a team where men and women are treated equally. But that’s really hard, and it’s beyond my pay grade.

“Everyone does this.” 

Now, this is a way of normalizing any behavior that you know is not a true reflection of your intent. If everyone else does it, perhaps you won’t stand out.

“No one will notice if…” 

We’re often lulled into making micro-concessions that appear to be harmless. But it’s a slippery slope, and the expectation that people won’t notice is a dangerous assumption to make. People notice more than you realize, and they form their opinions accordingly – and they’re more than happy to label you as a hypocrite.


So what can you do so that you are not branded as a hypocritical leader? I want to finish off with my five top tips for keeping yourself honest, and not falling into a situation where your words and actions are so far out of sync, that you are labeled a hypocrite.

1. If you are not prepared to do it yourself, don’t mandate it for others

We explored this in the example of the safety rule for only crossing streets at a designated crosswalk. Before you instigate any rule, policy or code of conduct, follow this three step process:

  • Make sure you are completely happy that it makes sense, has value, and will achieve the desired result. In this case, preventing a pedestrian casualty.

  • Check that it’s a reasonable thing to ask of people. Can they easily comply?

  • Make sure that you are confident that you can personally commit to doing it 100% of the time – whether you think someone is watching or not.

2. Before you take any action, pressure it to see if it’s likely to pass the Wall Street Journal test

Ask yourself the question, “What if my actions were reported on the front page of the Wall Street Journal for everyone to see? How would those actions stack up?” I think if we look through the lens of the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times or Australian Financial Review, it’ll help us to identify any holes in our approach that might be seen as hypocritical. Remember, without the opportunity to explain our intent or to describe our rationalization process, our actions will be judged purely on their merits. This is why the dispassionate reporting of a quality newspaper that simply records our actions for others to interpret can be pretty illuminating.

3. Ask yourself the question: “How would I react if one of the leaders below me did this?

One of the most obvious indicators of hypocrisy is holding your people to a different standard than that to which you hold yourself. Rather than excusing yourself because you feel you may have earned the right to be special due to your level of seniority, think about the value of consistent application of the rules at every single level. This is a core element of leading from the front. If you aren’t the walking, talking poster child for the behaviors that are most important to you, no one below you is going take it seriously.

4. Communicate

Sometimes, after you’ve put yourself through the harsh spotlight of the previous three steps, they all stack up pretty well. Which is good, right? But there may still be situations where you know that people will benefit from understanding the rationale behind your actions. So, rather than letting people interpret your actions and make their own decision about whether it aligns with the values, spell it out for them. For example, if your company’s core value is innovation, but you’re forced to kill off one of the company’s biggest projects, communicating the why is really important. Don’t avoid the elephant in the room. Something like this might work:

I know that our core value is innovation, but only where it makes commercial sense. We got to the point in this project where we realized that the innovation was too slow to market, and our competitors were able to launch a far superior product capturing the market we were hoping to target. Continuing this investment made no commercial sense, and even though I know you’re going to be disappointed, it was the only responsible decision we could take.”

5. Get a trusted advisor to help you 

A few weeks ago, I released Episode #183: Mentors, Coaches and Trusted Advisors – it’s definitely worth going back and listening to that if you didn’t catch it when it was released. When we talk about being held accountable for our actions and ensuring that they’re consistent with our rhetoric, no greater weapon exists in our armory than the trusted advisor. If you can get regular, honest feedback from someone who sees you in action every day, it’s worth a thousand of your own rationalizations.

Demonstrating the congruence between our words, actions, and intent on a consistent basis builds trust and alignment. Trust is the foundation of high performance, and without it, you’re always going to be getting something less by definition. Hypocrisy is a trap we can all fall into pretty easily if we aren’t aware of it, and if we don’t, test ourselves regularly. So watch out for those rationalizations that so easily seduce us into a false sense of security. Instead, make sure that these words are burnt into the forefront of your mind: there are no excuses, just my choices.


  • Read ‘Hypocritical Leaders are Poor Leaders’ – Here

  • Episode #183: Mentors, Coaches and Trusted Advisors – Listen Here

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