Simon Terry

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The Honest Dialogue of Leadership

For forty years you heard from my predecessors on this day different variations on the same theme: how our country was flourishing, how many million tons of steel we produced, how happy we all were, how we trusted our government, and what bright perspectives were unfolding in front of us.

I assume you did not propose me for this office so that I, too, would lie to you.   – Vaclav Havel, New Year’s Address to the Nation, 1 January 1990

The pressure to share good news and to conform within organisations can resemble that within a tyranny. Senior management in organisations is often under intense pressure to maintain a good news to customers, to shareholders and to the community. Without genuine dialogue, discussion of the present and the future in organisations can resemble a hallucination. It is not unusual that everyone knows the corporate line is spin and discusses their frustrations in private.

Vaclav Havel’s first address as President of Czechoslovakia after the Velvet Revolution is a reminder of the role each individual must play to engage with reality and to protect our humanity. Everyone can play a role to create the conversations that bring forward an honest dialogue. That will take a willingness to act to make change from everyone in an organisation.

Pretence Corrodes Reality & Humanity

The worst thing is that we live in a contaminated moral environment. We fell morally ill because we became used to saying something different from what we thought. We learned not to believe in anything, to ignore one another, to care only about ourselves.

Pretence is the expression of a view without regard to its reality. Pretence is what happens when you telling your boss, a customer or a shareholder what they want to hear. Pretence leads inevitably to a messy situation when you do that is you get stuck answering a question or defending a position. The next step is an out and out lie to maintain consistency or preserve what remains of your dignity.  After life rarely rewards those who share the bad news late.

Go too far down this path and organisations begin to lose their perspective on the creative potential of humanity.  Almost everything is sacrificed to maintain the illusion:

The previous regime – armed with its arrogant and intolerant ideology – reduced man to a force of production, and nature to a tool of production

We Must All Lead Conversations Grounded in Reality 

In other words, we are all – though naturally to differing extents – responsible for the operation of the totalitarian machinery. None of us is just its victim. We are all also its co-creators.

It takes two people to not engage in a conversation that should be had.

Senior leaders play a role in setting realistic direction and fostering a culture that faces reality. They use power and can leverage rewards to influence the behaviours of others to be constructive or destructive.

However, culture is an expectation as to patterns of interactions.  Employees in any role can play a part to raise the facts that demand attention and to begin to change the patterns of interactions in the organisation. Authentic and public dialogue in public is highly viral and highly influential.

Cultures that cannot face the truth and seek to control individuals to prevent the shattering of the carefully constructed illusions are unhealthy and surrender the opportunity to leverage the exponential potential of human collaboration. We must all reserve ourselves the right to be a little unreasonable in defence of reality and our humanity.

On the contrary, we have to accept this legacy as a sin we committed against ourselves. If we accept it as such, we will understand that it is up to us all, and up to us alone to do something about it.

We all can benefit from regular reflection on the lessons from Havel’s speech for leadership in our organisations.

Photo Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Václav_Havel.jpg


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