In an age of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act

I always thought this quote was by George Orwell, engraved somewhere on the walls of Big Brother’s Ministry of Truth.  But apparently not; many of the on-line quotation sites cite it as unattributed.  Whatever is the truth about the quotation concerning truth, I like it!

Don’t talk about sex, politics or religion

When I was growing up, the perceived British wisdom concerning manners and decorum was never to mention politics, sex or religion in conversation.  However, I grew up in Liverpool, where such topics, alongside football, formed the nucleus of most conversations you were involved in.  I will get to politics in a moment; to religion and sex first, which is a back-handed compliment to the late, great Irish comedian, Dave Allen (pictured).

Consider the wave of allegation, rebuttal and proof of heinous sexual wrong-doing in various religions that has now spilled over into many other areas such as sport and entertainment, and politics.  Where is the truth?  So many denials eventually followed by capitulation to truth’s battalions, fact and evidence.  Is it surprising we no longer trust our politicians or see the UK become ever more secular/

To politics, in the storm about Brexit, which appears to have been raging longer than the big red spot on Jupiter, is there now dire revolutionary need for truth from both sides?

Perhaps a healthy dose of bilateral mia-culpa would cause a fusion of minds and help draw together the macro and the micro, that is country as well as the many marriages, partnerships, families and friendships that have been torn apart by the referendum’s fission-like reaction.

Similarly, in the hurricane whirling across the US before, during and after the election of Donald Trump as POTUS, might bipartisan truth help still the vicious winds?  For one side to say Trump said “shithole” and the other to emphatically deny he did strikes me as being contemporary proof that Schrodinger was right about the cat.

Surely, at some point soon, as my mother said and continues to say, “Your lies will find you out!”.  From somewhere, somehow, a skulking, slinking manifestation of the truth will emerge.  Perhaps, such a rare event will wreak the scale of impact foreseen by the “preppers” of Tennessee with whom the flatulent yet amusing Miriam Margolyes spent time in the second episode of her excellent BBC series, Miriam’s Big American Adventure?

My encounter with an absolute truth

I started to write this piece on January 15th, Martin Luther King Day in the US.  Last November, my wife and I travelled from Atlanta, down through Selma to Montgomery, thence to Mobile and from there along to Natchez then up the Mississippi to Memphis.  We were walking in Martin Luther King’s steps.

To stand in the church where MLK preached adjacent to the site of his and his wife’s grave and across the street from The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change;

to stand on the George Pettus Bridge in Selma where civil rights activists were attacked before their march to Montgomery;

to pass the site on the road between the two towns where Viola Liuzzo was murdered because she came from Michigan to support the march; to stand outside the Capitol Building in Montgomery where the march concluded and where, during our visit there was a protest concerning the upcoming Alabama gubernatorial election; to visit the Rosa Parks museum (who was so eloquently recalled during her speech at the Golden Globes by Oprah Winfrey for her renowned protest on the bus but also for her support of Recy Taylor, a victim of brutal rape);

to visit a plantation house in Natchez and be shown around by a young African-American man who was studying engineering at college and working part-time at the house where his grandfather had been a butler during segregation; to stand on Thanksgiving Day below the veranda of room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where MLK was shot 50 years ago this April 4th combined together into an extraordinary journey that opened our eyes to truths both forgotten and unappreciated.

Despite this room being the site of MLK’s death, for me it oozes hope and positivity unlike Big Brother’s Room 101.

I never realised MLK was in Memphis as part of a growing protest over the deaths of two black refuse collectors.  On this Thanksgiving Day when we visited, a black female worker was killed at FedEx’s major hub at the city’s airport; the third death in four years.  Has the brilliance of the truth revealed by MLK and the civil rights activists 50 years ago been dulled to the extent that Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr was entirely right when we uttered, “Plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose”?

Truth blurred, ethics questionable

In business nowadays, do corporations and firms have sufficient “truth capital” ?  Consider all the recent scandals from banking’s PPI and interest-rate swap mis-selling to the motor industry’s false claims concerning emissions .  The truth has not necessarily been in commerce’s first-team selection for a long time.  For many years we were we told that smoking wasn’t bad for you before suppressed scientific evidence was revealed to demonstrate it is (watch the movie The Insider with Al Pacino and Russell Crowe).

In attempts to wean people off tobacco in the west, regulations were tightened, advertising banned, and tax and duty increased.  The producers looked east to where such controls are not imposed.  Occidental sales were replaced with oriental ones.  An article in the Sunday Times on January 14th stated this sales growth comprised innovative “heat-not-burn” cigarettes in which the smoke from the hot rather than aflame tobacco contains less of the carcinogenic tar and other toxins – between 50% and 90% less, according to early British government research.  The smoke has enough tobacco flavour, plus the nicotine “hit”, to satisfy smokers.  Yet what is the harsh, commercial truth here?  “We can make a lot of money with these,” said Nicandro Durante, chief executive of BAT.  Sugar, salt, booze, fats, red meat… all one day extremely bad for you; the next, less so.  Is the crucial issue that truth is missing from our diets?

A battle of truths, half-truths and lies is brewing around the collapse of Carillion, the UK construction behemoth.  In one report on the BBC News website, the following question about the truth of profit is raised, “When you sign a 10-year-deal to run a prison, do you take all the profits up front? You might, and your auditor, might, in the past, have let you. But the underlying truth is that you will almost certainly lose money in the first few years, and make all the profit – if it comes to that – in the final years of the deal, well after executive team that won the contract have moved on.” The old proverb rings true, “Don’t count your chickens until they hatch.” A few years ago, Tesco tried to and it cost the CEO his role and litigation ensue.  Whether Dave Lewis can fully revive Tesco to its previous “golden goose” fortunes remains to be seen.

Later in the same article, Leo Quinn, the CEO of Balfour Beatty, a company that prior to his arrival had its own Carillion-style series of profit warnings and accounts restatements, is quoted, saying it all came down to culture.  If staff are given incentives to achieve sales growth regardless of the long-term consequences, then problems would be stored up through bad acquisitions and contracts bid at the wrong price (or in my experience in banking, PPI mis-selling).

As Mr Quinn put it, culture is “what does it take to get me noticed around here?”  This accords very well with the original definition of culture, “How do we do things here?”.  A far healthier health reading of an organisation is its climate, which is defined as “How does it feels to work here?”  I find this a far better way to quantify its “truth capital”.

One constituent of climate is whether people consider their firm a meritocracy; the unmeritocratic incentives Carillion constructed for its senior people appear to match its prowess as a builder; too late, expensive, sub-standard.

Truth, pay and gender

Where does the truth sit in the roiling debate about pay and gender?  Let’s make use of the famous yet entirely unknown analogous widget maker.  There is only one description of the job.  Up come various applicants for two vacancies.  One person, a man, is appointed and paid £100k per annum.  Another person, a woman, is appointed and paid £150k per annum.  Fair or unfair; where’s the truth?  It turns out the man is relatively new at the craft of widget making and can produce 100 units per day, whereas the woman is expert in the craft and produces 150 units per day.  Different total pay, but equal value-add, surely?  Maybe not, there is a question of effectiveness over efficiency.

Is the novice man, slower yet more careful about the quality of his output; is the woman “unconsciously competent” and a little blasé resulting in a proportion of her work needing expensive re-work or maybe even rejection.   Truth is both binary yet infinitely multi-faceted (another breed of Schrodinger’s cat is born).

Here the truth of effective performance management pokes up its gorgon’s head.  This may be going too far, however; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X6YLAmKFpRM

Leading and managing truthfully

For leaders and managers, surely there can only be one course to sail?  It is not as Al Pacino playing Scarface, who remarked, “I always tell the truth, even when I lie”.  Rather, it is Mark Twain’s maxim, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything”.

As a leader, truth establishes your accountability for what your direct reports do and say.  If they lie, you have lied as well.  If you lie, you compel them to lie unless you have someone prepared to tell their Emperor that they’re stark bollock naked.

Yet in how many instances does truth gets cudgelled by gagging orders, which is shameful but, I guess, we all have our price.  What would yours be?  What’s mine; well, make your opening bid!

Truth – the Higgs Boson of human behaviour

Our world seems torn by the forces of divergent nationalism (see this article from The Economist’s Christmas 2017 edition: https://www.economist.com/news/christmas-specials/21732704-nationalism-not-fading-away-it-not-clear-where-it-heading-whither).  The evaporation of truth makes society at best too flippant, frothy and full of frippery, at worst, downright dishonest.  Truth, like the Higgs-Boson particle may not be readily visible but it adds substance and weight; it holds things together.

Or as Winston Churchill pugnaciously said, “The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.”