Distinguishing between truth-tellers and pundits

Last time, I introduced the roles of prophets, critics, and truth-tellers in enriching the ecology of leadership. I failed to mention however that there is an implied assumption that those truth-tellers and prophets are adaptive.

This is, of course, not the case.

Pundits, deniers, and “false” prophets that disguise themselves as truth-tellers are plentiful. There are still so-called scientists who push the notion that AIDS is caused by poverty. And every few years, we discover one group or another who foretell the end of the world.

What about global warming or intelligent design or the oil sands? How is the leader to distinguish between one polished voice from another?

Here are a few immediate, but conventional answers that come to mind:

  • It feels right.
  • It comes from an expert.
  • It serves my purpose.

See the problem? While each of those responses might very well be adaptive (avoiding dark alleyways because it feels dangerous or trusting your accountant to do your taxes), it doesn’t allow us to determine whether those responses are valid in new situations.

For instance, once I was sitting in the back seat of a taxi white-knuckled in Barbados. The driver was driving on the wrong side of the road! Fortunately, it turns out that my gut was wrong because being an ex-British colony, they drive on the left side of the road.

The key to distinguishing one voice from another is in a phrase: understand its provenance.

What does this mean?

It means that we must understand where that voice comes from and how it was constructed and tested.

If you want to know whether tobacco is harmful to your health, you don’t just look at the “two sides” of the research and weigh them. You also look at how the researchers tested their theories, how their research was funded, and what their priorities were. If you also understand history, then you would also understand why you would look at corporate-backed research with suspicion.

If you want to know whether your intuition is right, you act on it, but also check it with reality. You make sure that the intuition you have developed is appropriate for the circumstances.

The challenge for leaders is that they don’t have the time to re-assess everything the organization does. However, the leader does need to investigate more deeply the most critical areas in their organization.

Back to the original question. How is a leader to distinguish between one voice and another? Here would be my tips for the leader:

  • Cultivate a broader range of experiences and knowledge so that your intuition will more likely lead you in the right direction.
  • Conscientiously find authorities or resources whose provenance you do trust and remember that no one source tells the entire story.
  • Make sure that you are developing a broader sense of purpose so that you serve the purpose of people and life.

In an age of much relativism, sometimes it’s easy to say that I have my opinion and you have your opinion and that is that.

Unfortunately, opinions have consequences. In the words of my old English teacher Mr. McCrae, “There may be many right answers, but there are definitely wrong answers.”

So as leaders, let’s continuously strive to hear those right voices.

Chris Hsiung
U Venture
Better Life… Better Business

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