When the unacceptable becomes normal

The scandal that erupted when Jean Shrimpton arrived at the 1965 Melbourne Cup now appears a quaint reflection of Australia’s 1960’s conservatism. We have now moved on and that’s a good thing, right?

I read with satisfaction that objections to the photo realistic appearance of blood in a menstrual pad advertisement were dismissed by the Ad Standards board. That there were 600 complaints tells us something about Australia’s conservatism in the third millennium. The ad’s message – that periods are normal – is laudable, particularly given the impact on young women of the archaic aversion to menstrual blood.  

Some things should be normalised.

And some things should not. 

Washington Post article reprinted in the Sydney Morning Herald reported on comments made by Corey Lewandowski, President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager during testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. Lewandowski said;

“I have no obligation to be honest with the media because they’re just as dishonest as anyone else.”

I have long felt that the term “Fake News” has been assigned to something that has been around for much longer than online media and the 24 hour news cycle. It is simply telling lies.   

And yet I have a creeping sense of dread that the normalisation of public lying is on the up. Public figures seem to be more inclined to post-rationalise deception in the name of expedience.

The Cambridge Analytica crimes indicate the scale on which public deception can now be orchestrated. Public and political figures who have reached the top of their trees seem less concerned about exposure, backing their charisma, or the effect of identity protective cognition and filter bubbles, to save them from the traditional consequences of lying.   

Bare-faced, self-serving lying is becoming normalised. And this must be prevented.  

That everybody does it, is no excuse.

Netflix’s gripping dramatic depiction of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor meltdown should remind everyone that lying can put people in serious danger.  

That we have populations that are naturally endowed with different, sometimes contradictory values, affords humanity one of its greatest gifts; progress that is the result of the resolution of tensions between opposing views. If deception becomes the norm, the benefits of reasoned debate and argument are lost. The capacity of human communities to address and solve environmental, social and economic challenges will be undermined.   

In Australia, we have a pressing need for action to save the inland river system and the communities that rely on it. We need to protect the Great Barrier Reef and the communities that rely on it. Rural Australia has not well served by urban decision-makers. Indigenous Australians have not been served by the well-armed arrivals of the last 200 years. We need to solve issues of homelessness and a widening social divide. We need to solve energy issues for their impact on industry and domestic energy costs.  We need to navigate a shifting regional power balance with wisdom and concern for the well-being of all the people in our region.

None of this will be possible if leaders do not address reality and speak the truth, and while decision-makers avoid being transparent in their deliberations.

Of the many things that must be done to arrest the normalisation of convenient truths and alternative facts, what I believe needs to be done that can be done in the contexts of most LinkedIn members, is a renewed focus on leadership communication that is based on fact and reason.

A pernicious impediment is the compartmentalisation of “Communication” as a job description. We have time poor senior executives who rely heavily on communication professionals to provide the speaking notes, to develop the presentations and speeches; media training that focuses on developing a game plan that gives the appearance of consistency and being “on message”, handling tricky questions without flinching. As an adjunct, there is nothing wrong with providing or receiving this kind of support. However, when the main focus is on what should be said to achieve market-friendly press, the integrity and authenticity of leadership communication is undermined.

We have the privilege of providing support – presentation training, executive coaching and media production services – to emerging and established business leaders. The impression we get is that there is a widespread belief that being an effective communicator is largely about the externals; the way you stand and speak; gesture and stagecraft. These things make an important contribution, without doubt. However, without respect for reality – the facts – and the capacity to exercise and share a reasoned argument, no one deserves to command the attention of an audience.  

In our experience, when the presentation is grounded in reality, and the argument is sound, the performance soars; the voice and body in the service of the truth is phenomenally more impactful and influential.  

The fact that some people get away with the appearance of authenticity is no excuse.  

Human progress leads to a reduction in human suffering and rise in human fulfilment. Progress is possible when that which should be normalised is normalised. Recognising the right to wear an outfit to a horse race and accepting the normalcy of menstruation and its impact on women, is progress. Let’s face the fact that women, who are punished for straying from the norm far more than are men, are entitled to expect more, and more meaningful progress as archaic, gendered institutions and norms are done away with.  

However, progress is impeded when deception becomes the norm.

This must be prevented.  

Afternote: If this article has inspired questions about how this perspective can be translated into leadership and organisational development, feel free to contact us through the usual channels. 

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