I was reading an opinion piece in the New York Times this morning that sparked a thought in my mind about what is trending wrong with leadership these days. It was an article about football, but in it was a paragraph that caught my attention:
We don’t ask the tough questions. We seek to align ourselves with what I think of as the “control voice” — whatever piped-in monotone is dictating a given narrative at the moment. It’s easy to feel good about yourself when you’re patting yourself on the back for your inability to never fail to take the moral high ground, which everyone who agrees with you reinforces and enables, one Facebook “like” at a time. But there is nothing real about that. – Colin Fleming, New York Times Op-Ed, 1 September 2017.
Whether thinking in terms of personal, organizational, or societal, our willingness to suspend belief in favor of these “control voices” yields the very core of what makes even good leadership. When we don’t challenge the sound bites we are handed in advancing someone else’s agenda, we become followers, even when those voices come from inside – that someone else being our ego – reinforcing the great job we’re doing individually despite potential evidence to the contrary. Critical thinking applies whether those voices come from the TV, our social media, or from inside our own heads.
Facebook and Twitter are unfortunately primary offenders in this right. Not because they are intentionally seeking to undermine our critical thinking, but because the people who use them and find “news” there often automatically assume that it is true. One “Like” or “Retweet” later and huge swaths of the country believe it, and it becomes news. If you think I am kidding just look at the “gas shortages” in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, prompting 45-minute lines and short-term outages all over the Metroplex – right before the trucks come and refill the tanks, only to be repeated the next day by new 45-minute lines and short-term outages. It is a public created panic that led one wise poster to proclaim:
This is why the government won’t tell us if aliens are real. I mean look at how you act when you run out of gas!
I don’t believe in fake news – not on an aggregate scale, although I think there are some news organizations out there who are (by their own admission) entertainers and not journalists. I think people are yielding the responsibility to question, debate, and openly challenge what they are hearing because of the easy validation of the “Like” button. If 30,000 people retweet something, then it must be true. If 100 people like a post, then it must be true. If no one challenges my view of myself or my own performance – even if doing so could be risky to them because of my position or the culture of my organization – then what I believe must be true. Claiming something that doesn’t agree with that as fake news is just a means of not having to defend your own facts as a leader, and that is never good.
Good leaders accept nothing without applying the critical process of gathering and assessing facts and making rational – not emotional – determinations based on them. They do not have a control voice, nor do they listen solely or even primarily to the one in their own head. They are not affected by popularity as much as they are the rightness of their actions. They accept their results, good or bad, and strive to improve upon both day after day. That is the mark of a good leader.
Which leader do you want to be?