“My dear fellow citizens, for forty years you heard from my predecessors on this day different variations on the same theme: how our country was flourishing, how many million tons of steel we produced, how happy we all were, how we trusted our government, and what bright perspectives were unfolding in front of us. I assume you did not propose me for this office so that I, too, would lie to you.”
–Vaclav Havel, in a speech on becoming President of Czechoslovakia
Vaclav Havel, whose famous speech should be put up on the walls of the corridors of power in both politics and business, spent most of his life speaking truth to power. His articles and plays exposed the injustice and inefficiency of the Czechoslovakian Communist government, and after the Soviet tanks rolled in to quell the Prague Spring of Alexander Dubcek’s liberal regime, even imprisonment and the banning of Havel’s works failed to silence him. Havel’s life has been an eloquent commentary on the uneasy relationship between truth and power in leadership.
“Speaking truth to power” is a cliché. But like all clichés, it earned that status through its enduring efficacy in expressing a particular truth with rare eloquence. Coined originally by Civil Rights leader Bayard Rustin in 1942, its rhetorical cogency springs from the way it frames what is no doubt the most ancient of all of the conceptual conflicts inherent in leadership.
Power is indispensable to leadership, but the nature of the power and the way it is exercised can also be corrupt and issue in misleadership i.e. domination through lies, intimidation, and violence. This is why, ultimately, power is justified only insofar as it serves truth. What this means has more often than not been distorted and disdained throughout history, and now it has been all but lost in the technological triumphalism of our world today.
Authority, the right to rule, is the very essence of leadership, in that without recognized authority, the direction of a people’s destiny becomes susceptible to tyranny. However, whether recognized authority derives from inheritance, custom, contract, appointment, or election, power is still necessary, given the perversities of human nature, to uphold that authority, to give it substance. Parental authority requires the power to control and correct; the authority of a teacher must be backed with coercive power; managerial authority needs the power to direct, discipline, and dismiss; political authority rests on the power to protect liberty, provide justice, and maintain the security of life and property.
It is in the abuse and misuse of such power that leadership is most frequently defiled. Power can be used for good and for evil, and in that sense it is morally neutral, its quality being determined by the person exercising it. And there’s the rub; mixed with human greed, hubris, and malice, power is intoxicating, distorting reality and encouraging people to conduct themselves in ways that degrade their humanity and their ability to lead. This is what Lord Acton meant when he said: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
The great Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy, responding to an attack on his Christian principles by the author of a nihilistic tome entitled Might is Right or The Survival of the Fittest, summed up the irrational attitude that has afflicted people in power since the dawn of history: “Right is not the offspring of doctrine, but of power. All laws, commandments, or doctrines as to not doing to another what you do not wish done to you, have no inherent authority whatever, but receive it only from the cudgel, the gallows, and the sword. A man truly free is under no obligation to obey any injunction, human or divine. Obedience is the sign of the degenerate. Disobedience is the stamp of the hero.”
The irrationality of the attitude so clearly described by Tolstoy is easy enough to demonstrate: human beings have the power of reason, and the self-evident purpose of the intellect is to know truth. The capacity for rational thought makes human beings relational in much more complex ways than animals, requiring honesty, empathy, and understanding, qualities that need to be informed by the truth about themselves and others. It is only on the basis of these factors that trust, the essential foundation for all functional relationships, is established, and that good will, the spontaneous treatment of others as one wishes to be treated oneself, is generated within families, communities, businesses, and nations.
The lie is inimical to relationships, community, and one’s own mental health, fostering all manner of psychological snares, like cowardice, cynicism, scapegoating, contempt for others, and an inability to confront reality. Note how even those who flout the Golden Rule pretend to observe it. As the Duc de la Rochefoucauld told us: “Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.” This is why virtue, which rests on truth, is good for us, and why vice, which rests on lies, is bad for us.