Telling a lie is arguably something that everyone does from time to time. This can amount to a small exaggeration or a “white” lie that is apparently harmless. A lie can even be shaped by good intentions, for example to avoid hurting someone. (“Of course you look good in that new dress.” / "No, you have definitely not gained weight.”) But the “slippery slope” argument maintains that a relatively small first step can develop gradually until it amounts to something much more significant, when the lie is no longer harmless.

The other factor that exacerbates the impact of lying is when leaders lie. This stems from the fact that leaders exert the greatest influence on the conduct of others. But the ideal of being a good role model who influences his/her followers positively is, unfortunately, not always the case.

A recent example involves three of the National Prosecuting Authority’s most senior leaders have been criminally charged with perjury. This takes lying to a higher level since perjury entails the offence of wilfully telling an untruth or making a misrepresentation under oath. This month City Press revealed that former acting National Prosecuting Authority head Nomgcobo Jiba, Special Commercialised Crimes Unit head Lawrence Mrwebi and Provincial Director of Prosecutions in Pretoria Sibongile Mzinyathi have had criminal charges of perjury laid against them.

One of the typical responses to accusations of lying (and all the associated terminology) is that it was an “honest mistake”. As a mistake implies that there was no intention - that it was accidental - so too does an honest mistake infer that there was no deliberate intention to present a false or misleading version of the facts. But this is not always the truth: it is often another lie to avoid the consequences associated with intentional deception.

This was central to the case against Pansy Tlakula to have her removed as chairperson of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC). She claimed that she made an “an honest mistake” when she deviated from the full tender process around a lucrative lease - which led to the controversial R320m lease being awarded to her business partner. Advocate David Unterhalter, representing the multiparty forum that acted against Tlakula, found that the reasons she gave in her submission to Parliament regarding her conduct were different to those she had given the Electoral Court. The reason changed from having “discretionary” powers to deviate from tender processes to an “honest mistake”. This contradiction, according to Unterhalter, showed that Tlakula “chose” an unlawful tender process to acquire office space for the IEC and that she could not claim to have made an “honest mistake”.

In this instance, there were consequences. The Electoral Court found that Tlakula had abused her position and flouted the law with the aim of favouring a company in which her "friend" had a stake. She has subsequently applied to the Constitutional Court against her proposed dismissal but the Constitutional Court dismissed her application for leave to appeal the Electoral Court's ruling on the grounds that it bore “no prospects of success”.

Another area of lying that has been much in the news is the case of qualification fraud. Danie Strydom, chief executive of QVS, one of the largest qualifications verification services in South Africa, states that on average about 13% of the degrees that are submitted to them for verification turn out fraudulent to some extent, such as higher symbols, subjects added or outright fakes. Organisations – and specifically HR departments – need to be alert to this challenge. This is not only to prevent the fraud, but also because false qualifications carry the added risk that once employed, applicants may not be capable of performing their duties.

To avoid this, all qualifications should be checked for all applicants. Action taken by the University of South Africa (Unisa) illustrates best practice: they have pursued criminal prosecutions for all those who handed in false qualifications to gain access to the university, which has amounted to 94 cases of qualifications fraud (mainly of fraudulent matric certificates) from 2010 to 2013.

But are all qualifications checked? Or are the qualifications of senior executives and leaders taken on trust?

There is a numerous of examples where this trust was misplaced. In 2014 alone four cases have already been raised. In February the Public Protector Thuli Madonsela found that SABC COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng had fraudulently stated on his application form that he had competed matric; in July it emerged that SABC chairperson Ellen Tshabalala does not hold a BCom and a postgraduate diploma in labour relations as stated on her CV; in August 2014 the City Press reported discrepancies in Sanral chairperson Tembakazi Mnyaka’s CV regarding her master’s degree in town planning from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, which led to her resignation for “personal reasons”; and also in August ANC stalwart and former minister of Arts and Culture ”Dr” Pallo Jordan was found not to have a doctorate.

The case of Pallo Jordan, in particular, has attracted huge media attention, which has not abated despite Jordan having since resigned as an MP. Notably, many people have spoken out in his favour. This includes respected ANC veteran MP and former Parliamentary ethics committee co-chairman Professor Ben Turok, who went so far as to state that “the ANC and the country need his intellect and his consistent political integrity more than ever” (M&G: 20.08.2014). Jordan’s intellect was a major issue raised on his defence. But it should be recognised that this argument succumbs to the common tendency to rationalise or justify unethical behaviour. Normally it is the perpetrator, but in this case it is his defenders who have sought excuses to eliminate or reduce the culpability of his actions. Typically rationalisations would be based on an assumed good reason, on the claim that it is standard practice or that other people are doing the same things, or on the view that it is not so serious. In this instance, it is that serious.

Even viewed in terms of acts of commission versus omission, it is more serious. Lying is an act of commission when one deliberately tells an untruth, while it would be an act of omission when one purposefully excludes pertinent information. In an unethical context the moral distinction between commissions and omissions generally classifies acts of commission as worse than acts of omission.

It has been argued in Jordan’s case that one lie should not invalidate the contribution he has made in his various political roles. True, it should not: his contribution still remains and should be recognised. But countering this, it should also be recognised that when leaders lie – when leaders are found guilty of blatant, intentional deceit – the damage is significant.

This is because leaders have a far greater impact on others than most other people by virtue of the greater authority, power and visibility which their more senior role affords them. In their capacity as role models, leaders effectively “teach” others what is acceptable and desirable by what they say and do – and vice versa. Leadership in the public sector is especially relevant as their influence extends beyond the employees and stakeholders of a single company or group of companies to a whole country. Therefore, whether public sector leadership is good or bad has the potential to impact huge numbers of people.

What this illustrates is a circumstance where the full negative cost of misconduct is not borne by the perpetrator. To use the example of Jordan, he has arguably suffered damage to his personal reputation and he has resigned as an MP. But the cost is greater than that when high-profile leaders are unethical. It risks lowering the moral standards of our society and eroding the reputation of our leadership which can affect many of the country’s citizens. The cost is therefore effectively “shared” with others who are innocent of the misconduct, which adds enormously to public outrage.

So, should we be tolerant or understanding when leaders lie? Should we recognise that all people are fallible and that we all have human failings?

The answer lies in the roles and responsibility of leadership. Taking on the role of leadership brings with it an expectation that the leader will live to a higher ethical standard. And the most valuable role that citizens and followers can fulfil is to ensure that they hold their leaders to those standards and hold them accountable when they fail. In the absence of speaking out and acting against unethical leadership, we do indeed risk the proverbial slippery slope where less ethical conduct will become more and more acceptable.

© Cynthia Schoeman, Ethics Monitoring & Management Services (Pty) Ltd, 2014