Modern physics tells us that all reactions and events are a consequence of four fundamental forces of nature. Three of these – electromagnetism, the strong and weak nuclear forces – are not immediately obvious to the layperson. Despite the growth of popular science, most of us don’t pretend to fully understand the complexities they involve. But the fourth force – gravity – is not only all around us, it’s intuitive to the way we live our everyday lives.
All of us, at least from an early age, understand that if we drop a cup of water its contents will spill to the floor. We also know that although gravity may appear weak, it’s ultimately insistent. It takes the weight of the world to keep my laptop anchored to my desk, and yet I can lift it with ease—or at least, I can for a while! Try holding your arm at shoulder height without assistance and see how long you last… Nothing escapes gravity, least of all our vanity in thinking we might cheat it.
I open with this metaphor to science, because I like to think that over recent months, we’ve been witnessing a pull of a different sort. In domestic politics, the Coronavirus pandemic, the environmental crisis, and even the world of sport, I sense the persistence of truth weighing ever heavier on those who would seek to cheat us (and perhaps themselves) with illusions and lies.
As I write, the UK is in political turmoil over the behaviour of those in positions of power during the lockdowns of 2020; in the US we are seeing something of the equivalent as more facts surface about the practices and character of our last administration. Only last week, in a bizarre series of events, we saw the undoing of Novak Djokovic in the face of evidence that even he couldn’t ‘wish away, no matter how strong his will to win.
These are topical and even somewhat humorous examples of what some might consider being a long-overdue comeuppance. But the malaise of self-deception—as well as that of misleading others—is one that afflicts many businesses and their leaders too. Most often, I sense it’s not so much a matter of intent to deceive, and even less so of malice or prejudice. Rather, the denial of facts in our strategies and predictions stems from a mixture of wishful thinking, confirmation bias, and even good old-fashioned pride.
Which as we know, often comes before a fall!
The deep truth is that facts, like gravity, will inevitably win out. Markets in structural decline cannot will themselves to grow; organizations with toxic values cannot tweak them into acceptability; and while chasing unprofitable business may shore up the top line, it will surely tell a different story in the end. As one of my former colleagues used to say, ‘we must face reality as it is — not as it was, or we would wish it to be.’
Telling the truth, especially when others don’t want to hear it, can take real courage. Typically it is easier to sugar the pill, and of course, in our personal friendships, there are times when we might judiciously keep our counsel. But when we have a formal responsibility to others, it’s vital that we ground our decisions (and the actions which follow) in our best judgment of the facts as we see them.
Objectivity, analysis, and truth to data are as integral to good leadership as are inspirational words and a compassionate spirit. We may convince ourselves otherwise, but awaiting our self-deceit will be what the Greeks knew as nemesis: the inescapable downfall that is the consequence of our arrogance.
The good news is that our nose for the truth is intuitive too. Following it isn’t complex; we know when we are deceiving ourselves, or hoping, fingers crossed, for a miracle to save the day. And so it should be no surprise that others can sense this too. Those leaders who act with honesty and integrity in the face of vested interests or established dogma will be rewarded with loyalty and admiration that in the long run gives them leeway for the mistakes that all of us inevitably make.
But if staying’ true to facts’ is one of the hardest qualities of leadership, then so too is being open to opinions and ideas that challenge our perceptions. I don’t believe that truth is relative – at least not in the context under discussion here—but I do recognize that none of us has a monopoly of it. Our job as leaders, like that of scientists, is to listen, observe and make decisions based on the best available evidence. In that way, our failures, as well as our successes, can add to the body of knowledge, so long as we declare them both for what they are.
I remember at junior school being told the story of Isaac Newton’s epiphany as an apple fell from a tree to hit his head. Whether that tale is fact or myth doesn’t really matter; what’s important is that it helped to explain a phenomenon that we instinctively knew to be there. Perhaps, to understand the power of truth, we need to see more high-profile exposures; more of our politicians, businesses, and even some of our supposed sporting heroes shown to be what they are. Only then can we appreciate our world as it truly is —the good and the bad; the honest and the cheats; the facts and the lies. These are the forces of ‘our nature’, playing out in the harmonies and discords around us every day. But for all the clatter they create, it is the bass note of truth which, like the pull of gravity, quietly and insistently sets the tone and tempo of progress for the good. We do well to listen out for it among the noise.