Systems Leaders in a Post-truth World: Stories, Seeking out Difference and Spock.

Greetings, I am pleased to see that we are different. May we together become greater than the sum of both of us“. 

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).

Rare Stakeholders?

Roy Lilley, in his latest must-read blog ‘Stinkin Thinkin’ argues against the repeated use of words which he believes have become meaningless in health care. Stakeholder is one such term.
We (in the NHS) don’t have stake-holders” says Lilley. “We have…colleagues, partners, friends, patients, relatives, carers and people who depend on us”. He exhorts us not to use the word stakeholder, and suggests partner as a substitute.
For once I think Lilley has got it wrong. In my view, in the NHS we do have stakeholders, and they are crucially important. The stakeholder relationship to the health service is arguably very different to the role of the colleague, friend or partner. Stakeholders are people who have a stake: that is, who have an interest in an issue, a business or a transaction. That ought to include most of us. I am proud to be a stakeholder in the NHS. It was the NHS that saw me through the births of my children, that looked after my grandparents when they were in need of care towards the end of their lives, that has treated me and my family through a myriad of minor (and thankfully very few major) ailments, from ripped corneas to chicken pox, asthma to athlete’s foot, breast lumps to bursitis. Doctors, nurses and health care professionals have been there for and with me and those I love at some of the most difficult times in our lives and I am grateful for that – for that reason alone I see myself as a stakeholder in the NHS.
I am a stakeholder in another way too – I have spent most of my career in the NHS. In the 1980s I began my first ‘proper’ job, working with people with mental health problems who were leaving long-stay psychiatric hospital to live in a community that was at best disinterested, at worst downright hostile. Over the past thirty-plus years I have been a manager, a chief executive, a consultant, and a NED in the NHS. As an academic, I have taught thousands of health care professionals, and worked with some of the best colleagues anyone could wish for (and mercifully few of the worst).So I have a strong and vested interest in the service continuing and thriving (and – yes Mr Lilley – sustainably so), into the future.
What does it mean, to be a stakeholder? Wikipedia suggests that the earliest usage defined stakeholders as “…those groups without whose support (an) organization would cease to exist.”(Stockholders and Stakeholders: A new perspective on Corporate Governance. By: Freeman, R. Edward; Reed, David L.. California Management Review, Spring83, Vol. 25 Issue 3, p88-106).

And that’s the point: as stakeholders we not only have an interest in the NHS, we have a responsibility to support it because otherwise it will cease to exist. At no time has that been more evident than in the past year. Being a stakeholder isn’t a passive role; there is sometimes an implication when we talk about ‘stakeholder engagement’ or ‘stakeholder management’ that those who see us as stakeholders have to ‘engage with’ us, educate us into understanding why our connection to the NHS is important, manage us and our relationship to the service. But I see it differently. As a stakeholder I have a responsibility: to get involved, to actively support, to find ways to contribute, because without my support “…the organization would cease to exist”. I don’t think I am particularly rare – there are many stakeholders like me who recognise that we have a stake in the outcome, and that the future of the NHS rests on all of our shoulders.