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Leadership: “The Truth is . . .”

April 30, 2014
Sunrise or Sunset?

Sunrise or Sunset? How would you know?

I hear this phrase frequently during discussions and meetings. Someone will inevitably start a statement or counter someone else’s comment with the assertion “The truth is . . .” How can that statement be accurate? As leaders, should we let it stand? A more accurate statement might be, “A truth is . . .” or better yet, my favorite is “In my view . . . ” There are many other ways to get the point across that the person speaking sees things a bit differently. “The truth is” statement is like using “but” in a sentence. It negates all that goes before it. When someone states that a particular view is the “Truth,” it generally shuts down further conversation and dialogue. As leaders, that is usually the last thing we want.

In my view, to be intellectually honest, leaders must be agnostic about what constitutes “truth” or “reality” in almost all situations. And then, once a decision is made, move forward with confidence and determination. Accepting something as “true,” not challenging assumptions and/or not seeking many views of the data at hand leads to mistakes in the long run.

These are all easy traps to fall into. We believe we know what the customer wants. We believe we know how the customer will use our products. We believe we know where technology is going. We believe we know our employees’ desires. We believe we know how things are actually getting done in our companies. It’s human nature to take these shortcuts. Yet, a short read through the literature around the latest neuroscience discoveries and theories makes it pretty clear that no one person has the “Truth.” We believe we see the world as it is. Yet of course we “see” only part of the electromagnetic spectrum. We hear only a limited range of sound – many other animals hear higher and lower frequencies. We think we see color, and of course we do see something – but red for you isn’t necessarily interpreted in my brain the same way it is in yours.

All of this should be considered as we think hard about what we really know. Perhaps we might:

  • Update our customer information frequently
  • Challenge all assumptions as being no longer valid
  • Determine which assumptions “must prove to be true” to declare success
  • Purposely be “slow to understand”
  • Ask clarifying questions

Andy Grove believes that “Only The Paranoid Survive” (his 1996 book by that title). A leaf from his book might go a long way to making sure we truly understand as clearly as possible what the reality we face might possibly look like.

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