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Our Leaders Need to Tell Us the Truth

When those who lead us aren’t honest, the psychological impacts can be profound.

I’ve listened this week to the news. Covid-19 positive cases almost doubled over weekend, to just under 3000. I’ve felt a vague panic that had receded since the dark days of lockdown; the sense that things are no longer getting better, or ticking along. That those halcyon days of summer are receding.

And yet the number of positive cases has been going up for a few days before this sudden jump, and it hadn’t headed down since July. In the meantime we have seen a gradual re-opening of much of society – cinemas, hairdressers, non-essential shops. Holidays have been embarked on (even if some have been curtailed a bit early), socially-distanced dinner parties attempted. Schools and universities are re-opening right now. And then in the past month, a plea for us to return to our commutes and offices, even as case numbers began to creep upwards again. As all these changes sweep through, I have felt an uneasy truce: Yes I have travelled a bit on the trains, off-peak, and I have eaten out. But I have not felt relaxed about returning to daily life, knowing the virus was still out there.

And what made me feel more uneasy still has been the lack of clear information. While all these changes marched through, we got the occasional bluster-fest from Boris, more often a stuttering appearance from Matt Hancock or some other Cabinet Secretary. We got many U-Turns, explanations for how test-and-trace really was ‘world-beating’ (it is not), insistence that England is in a good position to weather the growing storm of a second wave (it was at that point that I knew we were in trouble.)

What we have not had is any real leadership. We hadn’t seen the return of the daily or even weekly updates until the change of restrictions this week. In that conference, the scientists tried to soften the ‘moonshot’ designs of our PM, eager to please and provide a solution for a situation that the scientists clearly see as deeply worrying. We saw a little of Chris Whitty’s gentle truth-telling over the summer - indeed the time we did see him, he said that we couldn’t open up any more than we already were doing and expect cases to stand still. His advice feels, now, pretty prescient and yet it was somehow allowed to hang over us without response, wafting through our second wave fantasies and fears.

If good leadership is all about communication and trust, then we can look to the British government under Boris Johnson as exemplifying pretty terrible leadership. Where information and updates could help people plan and make decisions to manage risks for themselves (and those depending on them) in a sensible way, instead there is a void. Well, perhaps some government websites and phone numbers which will tell you to get a test in Inverness or Barnard Castle (now limited to just 75 miles from your house! We are spoiled). But the kind of leadership that lets you know that things are being thought about, that your life matters? Not so much.

The impact of leadership like this has been well-documented in organisations and families. In psychotherapeutic terms we might call it a severe lack of congruence, a major case of inauthenticity: Where what someone senses of their reality is denied, whether explicitly or implicitly, by their leaders (/parents/partner). We could think of it as a form of gaslighting. Yes, you may see all this evidence that the virus is very much still on the march, and that the way to stop a second wave and protect lives would be to act with that awareness in mind, but we, your leaders, are not going to acknowledge that reality – in fact, we might act as if it’s not a reality at all and tell you to do things that feel actively unsafe.

Psychological research suggests what happens when people are treated like this for any period of time: They become stressed, there is more conflict between individuals/groups, there are higher rates of attrition in workplaces. Often, peoples’ understandable frustration boils over and appears as anger pitched in random directions – perhaps the shop assistant who asks you to step back or the person you disagree with on Twitter. As we head into winter, this will be something to watch out for in families and communities. Combined with the battle against racism and tipping point (justified) anger of the Black Lives Matter movement, this makes for a febrile atmosphere. Look at the USA right now. Where we feel helpless, powerless in the face of circumstances, then our less developed natures tend to take control.

If leadership this bad were happening within your workplace or company right now, would you put up with it? It is the opposite of what so much research has established over the past 30 years: That strong, effective leadership of any group (family, company, country) is rooted in listening well, empathy and understanding, sensitive but truthful communication. Authenticity is well-recognised as one of the most powerful attributes of a leader who is truly strong – unlike the leaders who will lie, cheat and bully their way past others.

No major company nowadays would want to see their teams run this way. And yet here we are: In a moment of real peril for the nation – with Brexit negotiations continuing alongside a global pandemic – we have leadership exceptional only in its level of incongruence, absence and lack of empathy. If many of us feel uncomfortable, it is because we can sense at some level that we are being treated with contempt and lied to.

Extinction Rebellion nail it when pointing out another area of absence by our leadership – climate change. Their banners demand that people do one thing: ‘Tell the Truth’.

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