“At their best, the words of a president can inspire. At their worst, they can incite,” said President-Elect Joe Biden after pro-Trump insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol building on 6 January. In a remarkable video, a sword-wielding Arnold Schwarzenegger commented that events in Washington were ‘started with lies and intolerance’, the consequence of ‘selfishness and cynicism’ and that ‘elected officials had perpetuated these lies’. He told a deeply personal story of his painful memories of growing up in post-World War II Europe in the aftermath of ‘the most evil regime in history’ and how we must learn from history the consequences of misleading people with lies.
History shows that if you repeat the big lie enough times, many people believe you. Now is the time for truth-telling and courageous leadership. The start of 2021 reminds us yet again that communication is critical to leadership. The survival of a healthy society is predicated on truth-telling. However, truths are much harder to land than lies.
Watching the ex-governor of California reminded me of another famous actor: Charlie Chaplin in the 1945 film The Great Dictator. For his first talking picture, Chaplin spent months agonising over the words of the final speech. It includes the passage: “The good earth is rich and can provide for everyone …but we have lost the way. Greed has poisoned men’s soul, barricaded the world with hate…Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery, we need humanity.”
Powerful, resonant words spoken by a man who spent most of his working life silent. The question is, will we stay silent when so many cynical voices are not? To paraphrase Chaplin’s words, the machinery of social media has disconnected us from our humanity and enabled the amplification of fiction, conspiracy theories and lies that are intended to divide and destabilise the fabric of society. It’s easy to create confusion and crisis with a seductively simple sound bite: fighting talk that appeals to the disaffected and the disenfranchised. But the disenfranchised have legitimacy. According to Dr Cynthia Miller-Idriss, author of Hate in the Homeland, with such a vast ecosystem of disinformation, it is difficult to put the genie back in the bottle.
Alongside this, we have the creaking machinery of our institutions – governments, the legal system and business – struggling to counter the crisis, including a culture war with big unresolved issues like how should social media be regulated? None of us know how this story will end but we can make sure we feature in it. We can grow our capability as leaders to communicate, to hear and speak truth, to champion free speech over incitement, to lead with feeling, compassion and courage.
In his book, Leadership is Language, L. David Marquet examines the importance of communication as a leadership skill and how we can use it to empower others. He compares the impact of language used by the captains of two sea-faring vessels: a container ship that steers off course into a hurricane resulting in 300 deaths, and his own experience as commander of a US nuclear submarine that goes from worst performing to best performing in the fleet. In the past week, we’ve seen how the US democracy could steer off course. For example, despite being potentially minutes away from a massacre earlier in the day, 140 Republicans still voted to overturn a fair election.
On a global scale, COVID is another crisis that leaders must steer through. Again, we’ve seen the devastating impact of poor communications. For example, telling people what they want to hear like ‘Christmas is not cancelled’ rather than following the science. In contrast, a year on, there is evidence that the qualities of leadership most effective in saving lives include positive communications attributes: listening to the experts, being honest with citizens, encouraging collaborations, and empathy.
So, what can we do as responsible and courageous communicators? After last week’s events, organisations like Dow, JP Morgan, Marriott International and Morgan Stanley chose to make their voice heard by halting donations to those Members of Congress who voted to object to the certification of the US elections. Dow cited its commitment to the principles of democracy and its values of integrity, respect for people and protecting the planet. More organisations will come forward. In parallel, some companies are speaking out about toxic communications on social media platforms. Last July, more than 1,000 companies boycotted Facebook for the month as part of the #StopHateForProfit. While it was a drop in the ocean in terms of its advertisers, the action amplified discussion about the role of social media in spreading misinformation and that pressure needs to continue.
To build our capability to communicate truth and lead with courage, we must first get out of our institutional bubbles and listen to different voices, including the disenfranchised. Secondly, we need to improve how we listen and engage with others. ‘Listen for what they are for, not just what they are against,’ as Jason Jay, co-author of Breaking Through Gridlock says. It is easier to hurt than to heal but we have to do the hard work, whatever our context. Finally, we must grow our capability to communicate truthfully, conspicuously using evidence. And, when there are gaps in the evidence or multiple truths that are in tension with each other, we must draw on our values and our purpose as leaders to inform our thinking too. Leadership communication is not about ‘fiction’ or ‘greenwash’. It is about truthful stories powerfully told that drive transformational change and inspire others to contribute towards a future in which we can all thrive.
Like Chaplin, we can’t remain silent. If you are inspired by Schwarzenegger’s Conan the Barbarian sword, remember that the pen – the communications – can be mightier.