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I was sitting in an airplane in Santiago, Chile, waiting to depart. Suddenly, I grabbed the seat in front of me with all my might, my heart jumped up into my throat, and I gasped for breath. No, it wasn’t a heart attack.
This instantaneous, automatic, reaction was caused by my belief that our plane was moving forward and was going to crash into the wall in front of us. My heart rate went back to normal, I release the seat in front of me, my knuckles regained their color, and I began breathing normally when I realized that in fact it was the plane next to us that was moving backward as it pulled out, and not the one I was in.
What is truth? And what does it have to do with Leadership?
I don’t know if you have noticed, but we are today living in a world that no longer believes in truth. Notice I didn’t say “that no longer believes THE truth,” but that no longer believes in truth itself. The very concept of truth is now widely rejected.
Today people speak of MY truth and YOUR truth, but not of THE truth. We talk about constructing truth, truth-values, and truthiness, but not about “the truth.” The very use of the word “truth” provokes automatic responses such as: “as long as you respect my truth while I respect your truth.”
Obviously, this is not the place for a lenthy discussion of the historical path that has taken us to this place. Suffice it to say that it has roots in Philosophy, Science, Geo-Politics, and Technology. All of these driving forces have combined to create a society that sees the notion of truth as antiquated.
Naturally, this has lead to an increase in justification for lying which we light-heartedly refer to as “spinning.” Political campaigns are now built upon the notion of creating a truth for people to believe.
Ok… Here I go. I’m going to confess to the world my little secret. I know I’m at risk of being viewed from here on as a dinosaur and barbarian. But here goes:
I still believe in TRUTH.
In the example at the start of this post, my perception was not aligned with reality. “My truth” was not truth at all. Of course, if you want to banter about semantics, you could say it was “my truth” for that moment. But in practical terms it was NOT the truth. It did not correspond to reality.
So there is a reality that is OUT THERE, independent of my perceptions, independent even of my beliefs. Of course, it is only accessible through my perceptions, which are always approximations and never absolute reflections of reality. So, in that sense, there is such a thing as “my truth” and “your truth.” But that is not the same thing as saying, as many do today, that each individual’s truth is just as valid as the next person’s truth.
So what does this have to do with leadership?
I’m just thinking out loud right now, so help me out if you have other ideas. But I think great leaders are truth seekers and truth speakers.
Such leaders refuse to allow power, fear, or enthusiasm to override their truth-seeking processes. They don’t insulate their decisions from dissent or disconfirming evidence. They pursue evidence and invite contradiction. They also make sure that systems are in place for vigorously measuring key truth-telling variables. They don’t “cook the books” or ignore bad news. They believe but they also verify.
The other area where a concern for truth affects leadership is in the leader’s communications. Leaders speak truth. Their careers are not built upon a media-created public image, but on a track record of speaking that which corresponds with reality.
Regardless of the unpopularity of truth as a concept, I think there is a deep hunger in our world for leaders who live and speak the truth and for those who, even when they have misspoken the truth, admit it and learn from their mistakes. I’m not advocating arrogance or dogmatism–just that we not give up on the pursuit of truth or on the pronouncement of truth as best we can in every situation.
What do you think? Is truth an outmoded concept? How important is truth in your understanding of leadership? What happens with leaders who play light and loose with the truth?
Greg Waddell provides consulting services for churches and organizations. Contact Dr. Waddell today at gregwaddell[at]leadstrategic.com to discuss the needs of your organization.