Truth as a Commodity?

For me, there is one key lesson from the last two years events in our government, leading to today’s resignation of the Prime Minister

That is to never, ever support leaders for thinking they ‘will get the job done’, without them also having very strong integrity and support for your organisation’s values I have seen where this has been ignored and fail many times, in business and in politics. It normally fails less spectacularly than this event has, but it always creates significant cultural and organisational damage.

My good colleague Mike Clargo, and myself have been given the deep subtleties behind this some more thought in the vocL article below. There is most certainly a lesson in it for us all, to always work at becoming better leaders.

Good authentic responsible leadership massively matters, now more so than ever!

We hope you enjoy reading the article and as always, we welcome your thoughts.

by Juergen Maier and Mike Clargo

Probably the biggest question we need to address at present is: How do we find ourselves in a situation where increasing numbers of our elected leaders behave abominably and still stay in power?

This question may not, at first consideration, seem as important as global warming, the war in Ukraine, or World poverty. But it is the biggest factor in all of them.

Because we have fallen into a situation where perceived truth has become a commodity in the economy of self-interest. Where the media, politicians, influencers, big-business and the ‘populous at large’ select interpretations that favour them. And in that economy, the poor and future generations lack the entry fee.

In the economy of self-interest, we have marginalised the universal standards that held us to account – truth, morality, compassion. We favour instead, only those things that increase our entitlements, our influence and our pleasure. As a result, issues like the global poor, and climate change are things that our leaders (in government, the media, and big business) would generally prefer us not to dig too deeply into.

Yes, they make sure there is enough going on that they look like they are taking it seriously. But the reality is that the solutions to these big issues are difficult and involve sacrifices that would make them unpopular. Whereas there are other topics where it is much easier to find interpretations which make them look good. Or in the case of the media, making others look bad.

And, with standards side-lined, then good and bad, right and wrong, black and white, they all become a matter of interpretation. And the interpretations we adopt are the ones that favour us, our group, our tribe, our politics.

Consequently, we are more divided than ever. Sitting in different echo-chambers, and lacking any shared interpretations and vocabulary to communicate meaningfully between them. And sacking those who reflect an alternative view. We can see this in the rhetoric and increasing animosity between the political parties in the US. And within the polarisation of opposing opinion between the two main parties in the UK. It has become the situation that each idea is judged by its source, rather than the source by the idea. This is clearly no way to lead a complex nation into an uncertain future.

And these divisions create weaknesses which other powerful factions can take advantage of – even to the extent of invading neighbouring countries.

The fact is, we need to re-establish some absolutes. The relativism that grants our leaders and influencers the power they crave is eating the heart out of our collective ability to do ‘good’ in this world (or at least reversing the bad). Relativism has led to a situation where we are obsessed by comparisons within ourselves, and have lost sight of what is important: Our World, our fellow Humans, and our children’s futures.

Recently, we saw Edward Adelson’s checker shadow illusion: 

If you have never seen it before, we are going to tell you something you will struggle to believe. The squares marked A and B are exactly the same shade of grey. If you don’t believe us, you can check it out in the picture at the end of this article.

We would like to propose this shadow effect as a metaphor for the influence of what we have been watching and reading for the last 40 years.

Have you ever wondered why soap storylines are so black, or why the news and newspapers focus so much on the failings of those around us? And why we lap it up? Well, here is our ‘interpretation’.

It used to be that feeling good about yourself was typically the result of doing good. But that took effort and sacrifice. Conversely, if you behaved selfishly, or let people down, or did bad, you would feel bad.

But all of that was in the context of local communities that knew each other. It was in the context of a shared standard of behaviour that people needed to make the community work.

But over time, the standards, the censure, and the appreciation of the local community have diminished in importance. For many of us the local community is just where our current dwelling is situated.

At the same time, the media has shifted in its own standards. It has constantly eroded the boundaries on standards of decency, discretion, honesty, and integrity in the pursuit of sensationalism, sales and ratings. It uses loaded questions to provoke sparks and fan fires where a reasonable person would seek to build bridges and sooth wounds. It profits from contention in preference to harmony.

And when we and those around us watch these storylines, or read these exposés, it subconsciously recalibrates our perception of ‘the norm’. Like the shadow in the picture, it imperceptibly compromises the standards by which we evaluate what we are seeing. Now as we ponder the consequences of our selfishness and excesses we can at least think ‘Well, I was nowhere near as bad as them!” and salve our conscience.

The collective impact of all of this is to shift the datum of reasonable behaviour, away from what society needs to thrive and survive. It makes the white squares grey, but we don’t notice because now the grey squares are greyer still.

Finding ourselves in a situation where our own elected leaders behave abominably, and still stay in power, is a natural consequence of that. But so is having leaders who only care about themselves, and avoid the really tough decisions they know are needed around poverty and climate. Particularly if the media is only interested in salaciousness. Particularly if that is all the rest of us is reading and watching.

We can fix this, but we need to begin by taking a long hard look at ourselves, and our own leadership.

It is very tempting to imagine that the steady decline in behavioural standards can be lifted by a range of measures: codes of ethics; independent overseers with teeth; education; changes to political debate and selection; press and media standards. But these can only be effective if the populous cares enough about each other to ensure they are effective. Without this, they will be simply another thing to play politics around or make capital from. Another option for media contention, publicity, personal advantage and political power.

There are no shortcuts to this. Our situation, and our leadership, reflects who we have become. And to get better, we have to be better. And we have to be better than we might imagine we need to be. We might think it is simply about playing our part, but our part is not simply about being ‘net positive’.  

To illustrate this, we would like you to imagine if you will a pyramid of all human behaviour. At the pinnacle, there are exemplary behaviours, and just below that there are excellent role-models, and so on, down to the base where we find the mix of ‘typical behaviours’. Average behaviours for such a population lie somewhere about a quarter of the way up from the base – and it is these behaviours that we need to be sufficient to make a difference. It is the people in this band that we need to be net zero etc.

Now imagine yourself in that pyramid of world behaviours. Where do you typically sit vis-a-vis the rest of the world population? If you have read this far, my guess is you are somewhere around the top quarter. Finally, imagine how much better our own behaviours need to be to inspire the average to what is needed.

The reality is, for our grandchildren and their grandchildren to thrive, we have to turn this shadow into a light. We have to make the central grey squares as white as the ones on the outside. And we can only do that by becoming whiter still ourselves, and by holding those who would seek to create a shadow to account. And, for the sake of the planet, we need to start now.

About the authors

Juergen Maier CBE

Juergen Maier is Chair of the Digital Catapult, co-founder of vocL – a platform for responsible business voices, former Chief Executive of Siemens UK, and is Vice-Chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership where he supports the drive for the green re-industrialisation of the North of England. He is an industrialist and business commentator.

Mike Clargo

Mike Clargo has over 30 years of experience and innovation in strategy engagement – helping internationally recognised clients develop exciting visions and engaging their organisations’ passion and creativity in pursuit of that. He is a pioneer in using design thinking and engagement frameworks to develop agile strategies.