You should tell the truth because it’s easier to remember.” Now this may or may not be something Mark Twain said (if a quote is folksy, wise and of unknown origin, it’s often attributed to Mark Twain). Regardless of the source, the advice is simple and lovely to consider, but difficult to do. And at times the truth can be even harder to hear. For leaders, creating an environment where it’s possible for others to tell you the truth can be the most challenging thing of all. Here, I want to consider the role truth-telling plays in creating the necessary conditions for transformational leadership.
As a filmmaker and storyteller, I have always been fascinated by The Emperor’s New Clothes. Not only is this classic tale based on a multitude of fables from around the world, but it is also considered to be one of the greatest parables ever told. The incarnation we most know, with a variety of adaptations, was written by Hans Christian Andersen in 1837. Like most people, I am drawn to all of its lessons: the dangers of being fooled by con men who play on people’s vanity and sell them nothing but thin air; the importance of being able to trust your advisers when sending them to check on work being done in your name; and, of course, the importance people place on the opinions of their neighbors. In a world of pure transaction, everyone has a balance sheet, and all may deem it too expensive to say a word.
But, of course, the most famous part of The Emperor’s New Clothes is the moment at the parade when a young boy finally looks up, points at the Emperor and simply says: “He’s naked.” In her book Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller, Jackie Wullschlager notes that the ending of the story was actually changed while it was at the printer. Hans Christian Andersen apparently really struggled with the conclusion because the crowd’s reaction to the Emperor at the parade is so critical to the story. In the original, there was no young boy—the Emperor simply marched in the parade and the people cheered. In the now famous version, a young boy speaks up and is quieted by his father who fears the reaction of the community. People stop for a moment but then carry on.
The ending of the story is pretty thin when you consider that we do not know if that young boy was praised at home for his courage, shamed into silence or physically harmed. Sadly, in real life, we know things do not always end well for the little boy. And the leader finds himself walking naked in a parade, not one adviser or loyal subject having whispered a word of truth until it was too late.
Almost every documentary I have admired, shown to students or made myself is actually the same story—someone finally states the truth out loud regardless of the cost of saying it. Because at the heart of the relationship between a leader and a member of the crowd is the responsibility of both to say and hear the truth. But what happens after it is said? How we collectively answer this will determine our ability to get past purely transactional models to become transformational leaders and wise crowds. This will only happen when leaders and communities truly make it possible for the truth to be told.