As Leaders, Can We Handle The Truth?


The truth is rarely pure and never simple.—Oscar Wilde

Since I saw my nephews perform in Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the truth. The play’s plot revolves around the legal defense of two Marines accused of murdering another soldier, a young man killed as a result of an informal disciplinary practice called a Code Red. In the movie by the same name, Jack Nicholson plays Colonel Nathan Jessup, the hard-edged leader of the U.S. military base at Guantanamo. Jessup defends his leadership in the iconic courtroom scene where he thunders from the witness stand, “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!”

The question of whether we want – and can handle – the truth dogged me last week. You know how it is, once you’re paying attention to something you spot it everywhere.

For instance, an email from The Representation Project let me know that the U.S. Truth in Advertising Act of 2014 has been introduced. The bill, if passed, would require the Federal Trade Commission to investigate how media is using pictures that “materially change the physical characteristics of the faces and bodies of the individuals” depicted to sell us things.

Most of us realize that advertisers digitally alter the bodies and faces of people in ads to play with our emotions, to entice us. Yet young and old, female and male, these images present false portraits of what we should and could look like if we would simply buy, buy, buy.

Studies that tell us that 3 of 4 U.S. teenage girls report feeling guilt, shame and depression after just three minutes of flipping through the pages of a typical fashion magazine. Boys today in our country are rising to meet girls’ shame; about 20% experience eating disorders.

According to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery Americans spent more than $12 billion (yes that’s B for billion) on cosmetic procedures in 2013, a 6.5% increase from 2012. The top procedure performed on both women and men was liposuction; breast augmentation was number one for women; and buttock augmentation popularity surged with a 58% increase in just one year. As the old song goes, it seems we now want big butts and we cannot lie.

We know those images aren’t real. Somewhere inside, I suspect all of us realize that a bigger butt or breasts isn’t the answer to our health, well-being and sense of worthiness. But continuous manipulation and the constant swirl of “you’re not enough as you are” messaging is hard to withstand. It takes tremendous courage to remind ourselves that we’re worthy just as we are.

Leadership courage is like this too. It takes courage to resist manipulation, both psychological and ideological, even when it comes in the form of well-meaning others who for reasons of deference, profitability, employability or strong sense of mission tell you what you want to hear.

Marcus Aurelius wrote, “Everything we hear is opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” As leaders we intuitively know that like beauty, truth is in the eye of the beholder. Leading, then, becomes a journey of nuances, of listening to diverse perspectives. Here are four ways to become a better leader-as-truth-seeker:

1.    Broaden your input-base. Do you more often than not meet with and listen to the same people every week? Start switching things up. Make it a point to broaden who you talk with. Call for dissenting points of view, remembering that POV is another opinion and not necessarily ‘true’ but rather a way to put together a better picture of what the situation really is. Exposing yourself to different points-of-view takes guts – but I guarantee you’ve got them! 

2.    Change your measuring stick.  If you’re using “busy” as your success measuring stick, you’re likely not giving yourself the time to reflect upon what’s really important, what has heart and meaning and is therefore more ‘true’. While we all want outcomes, there’s honor in process:  process takes time. Muster up the courage to be counterculture. Give yourself (and others) permission to #BanBusy. .

3.    Invite surprises. No matter what big (or little) data tells you, life is unpredictable. We cannot control people. We cannot control the weather. We cannot ever eliminate surprises. I once had a boss who shamed – even fired us – if we broke the “no-surprises rule.” Employees were to never let surprise be a factor, never allow ‘bad’ things to come to light without warning, especially things that might be “top of the fold, in larger than 14 point font” in the newspaper. Inviting surprises – and failures – as opportunities to grow, to connect more fully with one another, takes tremendous courage. Try asking, “What might we all be surprised to learn? How would we gracefully respond?”

4.    Welcome personal story-telling. Stories, especially personal ones, give us different perspectives about what’s true. Yesterday, NPR shared family stories that cracked open a myth about public education in the United States:  public schools are failing and we need to be more like China to be competitive in the global economy. Tens of thousands of Chinese are using U.S. surrogates to give birth so that their children will have U.S. citizenship. Not only to skirt their nation’s 2-child law, one Dad explained that he desperately wants his children educated here where classes are not rote memorization sessions (like China’s) but instead foster creativity, individuality and critical thinking. Listening to individual stories is a powerful way to test assumptions, to embrace more nuanced thinking and to myth-bust.

What else might help us come to the ‘truth’? As a leader, how well do you seek and invite truth-telling?

Happy Earth Day! #PeaceHugs flowing your way!


  1. Wise words, my friend. Fits with my new year’s real.

    • Dear friend, I’m being “real” here too and so appreciate the positive feedback! Sending huge hugs your way and hope that everyone in close proximity is supporting the REAL RENATA!

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