Truth, Lies and Wisdom

The week of February 9, 2015 was a hard one ON AIRfor journalism. In what felt like one blow after another, leading journalist after leading journalist fell, some by their own hand and some by circumstance. I’m referring to the public downfall of NBC news anchor Brian Williams over his inflated personal biography, CBS news correspondent and 60 Minutes host Bob Simon’s accidental death in a car crash, New York Times columnist David Carr’s freakishly poetic collapse on the newsroom floor and the announcement by revered satirist Jon Stewart that he was stepping down from his job hosting The Daily Show after a decade and a half.

In terms of speaking the truth, it was a rough week.

I am a self-confessed news junkie so when this terrifically terrible week happened, it made me pause. Society depends on the presence and integrity of its truth seekers to uncover and share with us information that is critical to know. Truth seekers are important – just look at what happens in societies that don’t have a free press. Ignorance is costly.

The week of February 9 also brought me back to the concept of truth itself, and the role it plays across every aspect of life. Most notably, how does one use and serve truth in their job? Maybe the question itself should be rephrased: Do you use the truth or serve it?

That is a question that is integral to the Wisdom 2.0 Conference, an event I am attending in San Francisco for the second year in a row. Wisdom 2.0 ostensibly explores the intersection of technology and modern life; many more topics are explored by extension. The conference challenges attendees to make mindful practices, and the subsequent wisdom and compassion they create, a part of daily life. To no longer be distracted so easily, and instead to plainly and fully look for and live with truth.

So the question of using the truth vs. serving it is quite relevant. There is a difference between the two modalities, subtle at first but  profound in application. Using the truth is a methodology, a tool applied to create a specific outcome. It’s truth used for argument, making a case, selling a product, like the well-crafted plea of a teen-ager imploring her parents to let her stay out beyond curfew just this once. It’s one-sided and directional. In other words, it’s what you use to get the results you want, regardless of the broader impact. Using the truth is not dishonest. It’s just narrow and, inherently, limited.

Serving the truth is ego-less, moving beyond even those cases where one is supporting a greater cause yet using that association to bolster their reputation or sense of self. Serving the truth is hard and, like other similar practices, demanding of continual vigilance. It’s hard because it requires you accept upfront that the results might not be the ones you imagined.

For example, a leader is asked to convince her organization that a new operating model is needed to improve efficiency and increase profits. She crafts a brilliant communications and change management plan to introduce the new model and implement it over a three-month period. The benefits of the new model for the business and for how people will work with each other are clearly stated. Yet underlying the new model is the potential for it to create even greater internal change by allowing for wholesale outsourcing of certain functions. This is not a definitive outcome though, only a potential one. What does the leader do, knowing that the new model is the best solution for the business in the long run? Does she use the truth in a narrow sense to just deal with the near-term or does she serve the truth by speaking about this potentiality, knowing that people will need more attention to understand this potentiality and remain focused?

I have seen this kind of scenario a few times throughout my career. Some leaders handled it well, while others were incredibly unskillful. One leader who served the truth was a man named Joe Mahoney at Prudential. A former Marine and sales leader, he did not back away from sharing the whole truth with his organization, especially during a very difficult period. He did not fashion an argument, he presented the facts, the impact and the possible outcomes. He created trust by treating others with compassion and maturity. He served the truth.

The question, and the challenge, therefore rests before each of us in our professional and personal lives: Do I intend to use the truth or serve it?




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