“The best minds are not in government. If any were, business would hire them away”, these words are attributed to Ronald Reagan, the 40th President of the United States. It’s said that as part of Reaganomics, economic policies attributed to him, he ensured that he surrounded himself with the best minds available to ensure the success of his policies. The man was brilliant enough to realize that his career in the movie industry had not done enough to prepare him for the highest office in American public life.
He realized that you need to surround yourself with men and women who have the courage to tell you things you don’t want to hear but must hear. I believe we all need to surround ourselves with such people if we are to fulfill our purpose in life. A person, or people who will tell you the truth when you need to hear it, period.
Who tells you what you don’t want to hear but should hear? There are things that we encounter in life that put us in positions that we either have to share uncomfortable truths or even painful news with a friend, colleague or family but we know the recipient of the news will be shocked by the truth . This applies to all spheres of life, not just in leadership interactions only.
A few years ago when I used to watch Idols, I was fascinated not by the people who could actually sing, but by those who couldn’t. There were obviously those who went on the show for their 30 seconds of fame, most of those cannot sing. But the type of people that fascinated me are the ones who would get on stage, shaking like a reed, nervous as hell and then proceed to give a performance so cringe-worthy you were so embarrassed for them you could feel it in your guts. And then they would look to the judges expecting some praise, which obviously wouldn’t come and the contestant would break down in a flood of tears. It hit me that those people genuinely believed they could sing but did not have a single person in their lives brave and kind enough to tell them the truth. I don’t really know why I stopped watching Idols, maybe I couldn’t stand the sight of people’s dreams being crushed for my entertainment. So who tells you the truth that you should hear but don’t want to hear?
Men can attest to the fact that if you walked into a room full of your people the last person you want to let you know that your fly’s open is a lady. Nothing may be showing but you want that to come from another man, unless that lady’s your wife, not sister-in-law or worse, mom-in-law. Similarly, for those of you young enough to remember your first dinner date, imagine going to the rest rooms during the date to discover you had a sizable piece of spinach wedged between your front teeth. Death. You wish you had known about that offending piece of vegetable before but also acknowledge that on a first date, the person sitting opposite you may have felt it’s not their place to tell you. But these are just examples of simple personal interactions.
I got to thinking about this in one of those moments when I let my mind wander about just why it is that in almost all of the eleven South African languages we have the expression ‘truth hurts’. I’m not fluent in all eleven but I can hold a conversation in most of the languages and have come to learn that expression exist in just about all of them (iqiniso libuhlungu, Zulu for truth hurts, ntiyiso wa vava in Tsonga). The name of my blog, THE TRUTH SHALL SET YOU FREE, came from one of those philosophical thinking sessions that I hold with myself. The title itself is obviously Biblical but the reason I settled on it is secular, if I can put it that way. Why is it that we know and agree that ‘…we shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free’, yet we also accept that ‘the truth hurts’. Given that most of us try to avoid pain in life, we basically don’t want to know the truth, we don’t want to be set free. Should the truth, in giving you your liberation, hurt you?
Many years ago, I had a cousin respond to an observation I had made about her in what I regarded as the most painful way. I said what I said to her and she turned around, looked me in the eye and said “you should be the last person to say that to me given that if I said the same thing to you, you would sulk for days”. At the time, that felt like a sucker-punch straight into my unprotected belly. Me, sulk for days, never! I sulked for days afterwards. I look back and realize what she said to me was true, yet I felt ‘It’s not her place’ to tell me.
So, who tells you what you need to hear but don’t want to hear? Whose place is that?
In the larger scheme of things, if you are living a balanced life, I believe the responsibility should fall on several people around you to tell you those things. If you’ve read my earlier blogs you’ve probably come to appreciate that I admire the leadership of Nelson Mandela. On the occasion of his handing over the leadership of the African National Congress to a much younger Thabo Mbeki in 1997, the world-revered statesmen said the following words to his successor: “Do not surround yourself with yes-men, for they will do you and the nation incalculable harm. Listen to your critics, for only by doing so will you become aware of the disaffection that ails your people and be able to address them”. The jury’s still out on whether the academically-inclined Mr Mbeki took Mandela’s advice to heart.
What Nelson Mandela said in that short sentence was, don’t surround yourself with people who’ll always suck up to you, rather listen to those who feel they have nothing to gain by sucking up to you. Then you will know the the truth.
I believe in our personal lives too, we need to surround ourselves with people who will not suck up to us all the time. People who will look us in the eye and gently tell us that we are going off the beaten track, however painful it might be to hear those words.
Sadly, most people’s reaction to the truth is to go on the defensive. We let our egos take over and let the person know, ‘it’s not your place to tell me that’. Because of these walls that we build around ourselves to protect us from the truth, because it hurts, we never reach our full potential as people.
Just this past week, the head of our Electoral Commission, Pansy Tlakula, was fingered in a damning report by another formidable woman leader in the guise of Thuli Madonsela, the Public Protector, as having put herself in a position of conflict of interest. Her commission has done business with a company whose owner she knew and once did business with. The report does not say she benefitted inappropriately from the business deal, but that she should have disclosed the connection. How did Pansy Tlakula react to the report? Like most normal human beings, like you and I, she went on the defensive, “I won’t resign”, she defended herself at every available opportunity, because ‘the truth hurts’.
It’s not very easy to surround yourself with people who will tell you the truth without fear or favour, most of us shy away from doing that because we don’t enjoy rocking the boat. I mean, would you rather risk being friendless by telling your friend the truth and losing them or is it better to hope they’ll realize the folly of their ways in the long run? Sadly, in certain instances, the long run leads to irreversible consequences.
I would rather you told me the truth, have me sulking, but knowing I know the truth. I consider myself blessed in the sense that in my journey of redemption, back from the lows of taking offense at every little thing, I’m based in church that preaches the word in a very practical way. In the past, I found it quite difficult to sit through church because I either came out feeling condemned as the worst sinner in the world or that I could not see a way in which I could ever be on the God’s right side.
But I’ve now been Blessed with a church that has become one of those friends, friends who will tell you the truth no matter what, knowing that the truth might hurt just for a little while, but the benefits of knowing the it are immeasurable.
In the 1980s, during the struggle against apartheid, a gruesome way of dealing with suspected agents of the apartheid government emerged in which suspected police spies were burnt alive through ‘necklacing’, a car tyre burned around the victim’s neck. ‘With matches and tyres we will free our land’ declared the then mother of the nation, Winnie Mandela. Archbishop Desmond Tutu came out and publicly lamented the gruesome act. He became the person who was willing to tell the nation the truth no matter what, the conscience of our struggle.
In our daily struggles as people, who is our conscience? Who tells you that your zip is undone and you are glad they did, not embarrassed they noticed it? In addition to trusted friends, family and colleagues, we must seek out people who have no benefit to our feeling good about ourselves and listen to what they have to say about our walk here on earth. If we do, we might just discover that the truth doesn’t have to hurt, rather, as the Good Book says in the Gospel according to John(Ch 8:31-32), “…we will know the truth, and THE TRUTH SHALL SET US FREE.