Post-truth was the word of 2016, according to the OUP. You could be forgiven for viewing that with a degree of alarm, the implication being that we were moving into a world where truth doesn’t matter, facts are debatable, the media can’t be trusted, and lies are fine as long as you can tell a good one. Possibly that’s the case, and if so it’s undoubtedly scary, but perhaps there is room for cautious optimism.
After all, the behavioural science which underpins the notion of post-truth isn’t new: it’s long been recognised that we all have preferences, and tend to seek out explanations (and people) that confirm our biases. We choose the information we pay attention to, through the conversations we have, the media we use, the books we read. Evidence, facts and data are selective at best. Truth is always partial (unless it’s the whole truth, and nothing but) and a smattering of scepticism makes good sense.
Even so I don’t think we can assume in a post-truth world that people don’t care about reasoned argument and evidenced analysis. People – voters, citizens, ‘ordinary, hard-working families’ – often respond more to emotional arguments than to ‘cold hard logic’ so leaders have to be able to tell compelling, appealing stories that address feelings. The narrative has to be underpinned by evidence though. Leaders have to appeal to hearts as well as minds. Feelings are truths, but rationale and evidence matter too.
What does appear to be changing is the volume of information available to people in an increasingly complex, ambiguous ‘post-truth’ world. There is so much out there, what should we believe? Who should we listen to? Is everyone lying and if so, how do we trust our own thoughts and feelings? When everything is changing so rapidly, how can we find stability and the ‘still, small voice of calm’?
One response appears to be for people to seek out even more strongly what they perceive to be the plain, simple, unvarnished stories that ‘tell it like it is’ and allow no room for nuanced debate, uncertainty or doubt. People often revert to the familiar and the safe, they seek people who appear to have answers, rather than those who ask searching questions. Such a strategy is likely to result in ever-increasing polarisation, much greater ‘othering’ of those who think and behave differently, a retreat into our ‘bubbles’ which don’t allow challenge or alternative truths to penetrate. It’s an understandable reaction, but it’s a dangerous one, as we’ve seen in recent years.
So why the cautious optimism? Well, there are strategies that could enable us to make new sense in a post-truth world, if we’re brave enough to try them, and using them might lead us towards some new truths. These strategies have much to offer systems leaders, who by definition are trying to develop new paradigms of leadership in complex, chaotic, ambiguous and volatile systems at a time when many people are seeking definitive ‘right’ answers and unwavering decisive leadership.
For example, spending ten minutes listening to someone whose views you disagree with, without talking, interrupting or correcting. Just listening. Not assuming they’re wrong, or moronic. Your task isn’t to correct anyone – just to listen.
For systems leaders, seeking out difference is vital and that implies actively listening to people who disagree with you. And trying to understand what it is that you need to ‘get’ about them instead of assuming that ‘they just don’t get it’.
It is also essential for leaders to resist the temptation to have all the answers. At times of huge uncertainty, when structures and systems are changing all around us, it is natural for people to gravitate towards leaders with good stories which address our fears and hopes, and for leaders to want to look like they’re in charge and taking decisive action.
That’s an illusion. Just like the Wizard of Oz. Systems leaders have to encourage their followers to pull back the curtain. “Truth” as Oscar Wilde pointed out, “is rarely pure and never simple”. Getting used to finding incomplete answers, living comfortably with the mess, and constantly asking questions are all essential attributes of systems leadership.
Systems leaders must be good at telling stories, undoubtedly, but they have to be equally good at telling the truth and sometimes that means saying ‘ I don’t know the answer. How can we work it out together?’ or, as the greatest Vulcan of them all once said “I am pleased to see that we have differences. May we together become greater than the sum of both of us“.
Live long and prosper.
(I wrote a version of this blog exactly 4 years ago. It seems like it has even more relevance today).