Speaking truth to power
Let me start by taking a step back to first clarify the relationship between truth and power. I remember reading an article which compared the effect black holes have in distorting space-time, with the effect power has on distorting reality: the closer you are to them, the bigger the distortion gets. As the historian and writer Yuval Noah Harari puts it: “Truth and power can travel together only so far. Sooner or later they go their separate ways”.
In other words, people in positions of power, such as CEOs, Directors, Presidents, or Ministers, need to be aware of the difficult position their closest stakeholders and team members find themselves in, and act accordingly.
On the one hand, their advisors are there to help them take the best possible decisions, by providing them with the most recent and factual information available. On the other hand, given the nature of this relationship and the human emotional drive to be liked and supported by the very person who can make or break your career, they have a clear interest in biasing the information they provide, if and when it makes them shine in a better light.
It is essential for leaders to understand the existing inherent dichotomy in their closest professional relationships, in order for them to build this reality into their equation, and make sure that they will hear someone shout “the emperor is wearing no clothes” when needed. Expecting this to happen on its own, may be expecting the unreasonable.
And so, as a leader, how can I make sure that truth is actually spoken to power?
I do not think it is necessary to argue why it is important for a leader to have as much as the available factual information possible, in order to take the best decisions. Therefore, assuming all people in power want to have access to “truth”, the question becomes how.
At this point, there are two challenges that I believe are crucial to tackle here: one, as mentioned above, is how to eliminate or minimize others’ bias. The other one, is how to try to eliminate our own.
In order to make sure that truth is spoken to power from the outside, we need to put this at the center of the relationship contract: be it with a trusted person within the circle of family or friends, an external adviser, consultant, expert or a coach. Challenging and helping the leader confront tough realities, needs to be part of that contract. In other words, it is my job as a leadership coach to show my clients angles, blind spots and perspectives that they may have never considered or seen before, always coming from a place or honesty and truth, no matter how hard that new perspective may be.
In order to eliminate our own bias when we hold positions of power and success, we first need to be aware of its existence. Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s discovery of cognitive biases and how they affect our decision-making revolutionized the world of behavioural economics and cognitive psychology. Leaders in positions of power come from relatively favourable past events that put them there. Kahneman explains the hindsight bias as our tendency to “look back at past events, adjust our worldview to accommodate the surprise and hold the position that ‘I-knew-it-all-along’. Leaders who have been lucky are never punished for having taken too much risk (…). A few lucky gambles can crown a reckless leader with a halo of prescience and boldness.”
In short, whether you are a leader or not, if you want to stay close to reality and to “truth”, keep your own expectations, beliefs, opinions and assumptions in constant check, and make sure you have people around you that you trust, and with whom you have the specific agreement of being challenged! And to have a good estimation of how you are doing in this regard, right now, I have two questions for you: (1) when was the last time someone you trust gave you valuable and honest feedback to help you grow? (2) And when was the last time you challenged yourself and changed your opinion, based on new facts and information, on a relatively important matter? Happy exploration!