German theologian and educator Bernhard Bueb, 76, was Head of “Schloss Salem” school at Lake Constance/Germany from 1974 to 2005. He published numerous books, including “The Power of Honesty” and “Praise of Discipline”. In an interview with Tiding he explains how honesty, power and self-awareness are connected.
Tiding: As the saying goes, “Honesty is the best policy”. Do you also see it that way?
Bernhard Bueb: The saying summarises the experiences of centuries. Friendships, marriages or business relationships arise from trust, which is based on honesty. Nothing endangers such relationships more than a lie and nothing strengthens it in the long run as much as honest dealings.
Mark Twain’s take on the well-known saying was, “Honesty is the best policy, but there are times when the appearance of it is worth six of it.” Isn’t he right?
He is right in that, but only for a while, because at some point the appearance of honesty will be exposed and then the damage will be far greater than the short-term benefit, which the appearance generates.
In your book “The Power of Honesty” you describe how only truthfulness and honesty help people to achieve true power. Many politicians and business leaders are powerful, but one would regard exceedingly few of them to be honest. How do you explain this discrepancy?
A company will only be successful on a sustained basis if honesty binds its customers. “I would rather lose money than trust” is a statement made by German businessman Robert Bosch from the past century, which established his company’s global success. Also, the trust in politicians is based on their honesty. That is not to say that politicians may not sometimes lie or even must do so. When German Chancellor Merkel and her Finance Minister Steinbruck stated during the 2008 financial crisis that people’s savings deposits were secure, that was a lie, since they were unable to guarantee them. In the conflict of values between honesty and protection against a panic, however, they had opted for protection. This is called a white lie. White lies are permitted if you don’t lie for a personal benefit, but rather for the benefit of the common good.
Do you advise our readers to be more honest? Perhaps also to tell business partners the unvarnished truth, even against the risk that the business relationship would come to an end?
I advise them to be honest even then. Lies that serve my personal benefit and not the common good destroy any business relationship. I remind you of Bosch’s statement. You cannot be naively honest, however. You may be cunning, but you must not lie. “Be wise as serpents”, Jesus Christ advised his Apostles when he sent them into the world, in order to proclaim the truth.
Business Hanse holds traditional values in high esteem. This is where
transactions based on handshakes count, where people trust each other, without always having a lawyer at hand. Is this the model for the future? It remains the model for the present and the future. If trust disappears in the business world, transactions are no longer made. I will not commission a craftsman a second time, who does a bad job for cost reasons. I will no longer see a bank advisor, who advises me to invest in a product that is no good, but which produces sound commissions for him and the bank.
One of your core theses is that you can only be honest to another person if you are honest to yourself. Do most people lack self-awareness?
Many people lie to themselves. They suppress their weakness and appear outwardly differently than they really are. They seek recognition, while they pretend to be something that they are not. The lie serves the purpose of looking better when compared to others.
Can honesty be learned and practiced?
A person lies less if he accepts himself the way he is, if he indeed tells himself the truth. Then he does not have to fool others. A person with a strong sense of self-worth can afford to treat others honestly. People, therefore, acquire honesty in early childhood. If you have not obtained a sense of basic trust through the love of your parents, you will find it difficult to develop trust in other people. Those people will always be dependent on control and punishment to be able to be honest. •