Saturday, December 31, 2016

Leading Truth or Denying Reality?

How we talk about a fact shapes its meaning. Was that new product a failure, or did we just come down the learning curve? Did your career just take a hit, or are you pivoting into a promising new future? Facts are ambiguous, and so how we describe facts helps make sense out of them. One person's rebel is another's traitor, and a well-told story (think Hamilton) will tip the balance.

Of course we all know that effective leaders know how to use narratives - stories that give meaning to facts. But the use of narratives can be either very good - or very bad - for the future. It all depends on whether a narrative leads, or denies, the truth.

In some cases, narratives are used to lead the truth. While the major carmakers were spinning narratives against California's zero-emission vehicle mandate back in 2003, Elon Musk and his colleagues created Tesla, a counter-narrative that has changed the truth about electric cars. Because multiple futures are possible, those who shape what we regard to be possible change our efforts to make those possibilities real. So it is that a narrative can lead the truth.

Leading the truth is not just "spin." Spin is about putting a good face on bad facts. In contrast, leading the truth creates reality by helping us see what is possible. The greatest leaders in history are important not for what they created, but for what they helped others to see as possible, and so create. Once created, what was once considered impossible is then seen, rightly, as the truth. In this way, great leaders lead the truth.

Alternatively, other leaders use narratives to deny realities that we wish were not true. How convenient it would be if man-made climate change were not real. Psychologists tell us that we are prone to believe what we wish were true, even if this requires denying reality - as we see with science deniers confronted by the looming reality of climate change.

Time corrects such wishful thinking, of course, as the facts come to be undeniable at some point. But in the meantime, nefarious leaders take advantage of our desire to deny reality by spinning narratives that play to our weaknesses. When I was young, I recall hearing leaders spin narratives to deny reality: cigarettes are not really bad for you; the US was winning in Vietnam; climate change is a hoax.

Time will tell, of course. In time, we'll look back and know that some leaders were visionary - they used narratives to lead the truth. Others will be shown to have been reality deniers, and history will judge them severely. The problem, of course, is the damage they do in the meantime.


To dive into the large academic literature on narratives and counter-narratives, you might start with the work of Michael Bamberg and his colleagues.