Discover Shared Mental Models That Choke ‘Truth to Power’

Truth to Power is the capacity to be honest, forthright and candid with those poeple who hold more real or perceived power than yourself. Gary uses a real life conversation from an elite sport team where dialogue skills were used to challenge a shared mental model about leadership. Gary then relates this conversation to the businessworld and highlights the power of using dialogue to support truth to power in an organisational context.

“Before I was announced Captain of the club”, shared John, “Whenever an issue came up, I would always first look at the Captain for his response. I even did this when someone said something that was funny – I’d check the Captain’s response before I said anything. It was as if I didn’t even have my own mind. When I look back now I realise that I had a view that because the Captain was the Captain, he’d automatically know the answer to whatever issues were raised. You know, somehow he’d been dipped into the font of all wisdom.”

John continued, “Then I became Captain and one of the first things I noticed was people looking at me and waiting for my reaction and I realised that they were now doing to me what I had been doing to the previous Captain. And it wasn’t just a few of the players, it was everyone! But I know that I’m not the font of all wisdom because I’m learning too. If I already knew everything about being Captain then how could I improve over the next three to four years? I can’t imagine that I won’t improve which therefore means that I’m not as good now as I will be in the future. This also means that right now I won’t know the best way to handle every issue that comes up. I’ll know a few because I’ve been around a while now, but I won’t know everything. The pressure you feel to have an answer, “the answer” is incredible!”

After a period of time John added, ” When I wasn’t the Captain I recall a few times when I actually did have a different opinion about what we should do, but I never raised them because I thought to myself, “Oh well. The Captain knows best so we should do what he thinks. Otherwise he wouldn’t be Captain.” Guys, please don’t do that, if you have a different view to me I need to hear it. My view might be wrong. More importantly when we put our different views together maybe we’ll all see something better that none of us could see on our own.”

What an insightful series of comments. John (not his real name) is the Captain of an elite sports team with whom I have worked in Australia. These comments were made in relation to an explicit conversation that I was facilitating with John and the rest of the Leadership Team with whom he was working. The purpose of the conversation was to raise their individual and collective awareness of their mental models regarding leadership. The other members of his Leadership Team remarked that they too had shared the “font of all wisdom” mental model regarding the person holding the title of Captain. They also all agreed how ridiculous such a mental model was and how debilitating it probably was to their performance and their capacity to present a different view to those in positions of power. Yet they also agreed, and I observed in practice, just how difficult such a mental model is to stop from a behavioural perspective.

This brief conversation provides a detailed insight into the collective mental models about leadership that are both flawed and limiting in the context of Truth to Power. Truth to Power is the capacity for people who have less real or perceived power to be honest and direct with people who hold more power. In the example provided by John and his team-mates above it is little wonder people find it difficult to hold alternate views with those in power. Similarly it is little wonder that those in power often behave in a defensive way when people present a different view to the one they hold. Quite literally the issue of ‘saving face’ becomes real.

Elite sportspeople are often described as “jocks who can’t think for themselves”. My experience could not be further from that description. The elite sportspeople with whom I have worked closely have been, to a person people who have been intelligent and willing to learn. Very rarely, including in the corporate world, where we work extensively have I experienced such an open and honest conversation as the one described above. John’s willingness to be vulnerable to his team-mates by suspending (please see the blog on the Seven Skills of Dialogue) his mental models about his role and how they had changed as a result of becoming the Captain was a privilege to experience. John’s intention for sharing this information was to open the door as far he possibly could to enable his fellow Leadership Team members to be honest with him and to not default their views to him simply because he was the Captain.

While we never used the term ‘Dialogue’ the Leadership Team were actually holding a dialogue about their individual and collective mental models about leadership. John was concerned that if he wasn’t explicit about his experience of transitioning not being the Captain to becoming the Captain, then it would not be until the next Captain was in his shoes that he would understand this perplexing situation. While the leadership team still has some considerable distance to travel in their development the fact that this conversation had taken place meant that John could refer to it whenever he sensed that the rest of the Leadership Team were not being completely honest with him about their views on any given issue.

While this example is provided from an elite sport context, the same phenomenon occurs throughout the government and corporate sectors. One of the only ways to release the choke hold on people that the mental models described above can have on people’s behaviour is to develop the capacity to dialogue. My view and experience is that if the capacity to dialogue can be developed within the elite sport arena, then it can also be developed in any other sector. ‘Not enough time’ is often used an excuse for not developing the capacity to dialogue. I can’t think of an industry where time is less available and the pressure as high as in the elite sport arena. The point of leverage for change will come from both those in positions of power and those with less power to trust the learning environment created through dialogue to collectively release the stranglehold of these debilitating mental models.

What are your experiences with holding conversations regarding your individual and collective mental models regarding leadership? Have you ever had them? How do you think they would unfold?

Gary Ryan enables individuals, teams and organisations to matter.
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