When the Truth is Inconvenient
The other day I was having lunch with some of my Chinese Malaysian colleagues when one of them ask me an interesting question. “Do you believe in standing up for the truth?” one of them asked to me. It seems like such a straightforward kind of question, but it is often more about wisdom than courage
Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i Faith answers the question this way.
“Not everything that a man knoweth can be disclosed, nor can everything that he can disclose be regarded as timely, nor can every timely utterance be considered as suited to the capacity of those who hear it.”
In answering the question to my colleagues I told them that saying my version of what the truth is takes a lot of wisdom so, in most cases, I chose my battles where I think I may have a chance of affecting the outcome in a positive way. I usually don’t fight for something if I don’t think my actions are going to make a dent in the way people think.
Having said that to them I told them my stories of being fired when I acted counter to the normal wisdom I would usually display. I don’t think anyone can accuse me of playing politics by saying things that will please the leaders, but I do realize that there is value in holding things back at times. It is not easy to know when to use restraint when I want to let it rip. Most of the times I see that the leadership is very conservative or protective in certain areas so I don’t go to those areas to voice to many opinions. If they ask for an opinion or for consultation on an issue in a sincere manner, then I feel I have a responsibility as a part of the group to voice my opinion. Many leaders are comfortable and open and give a lot of autonomy in some areas and then very protective in others. Wisdom requires that I study a situation to understand which is which.
There are times when I have had to throw conventional wisdom out the window. It has happened to me when I am faced with a hostile takeover of the forward thinking philosophy I am working with by a more traditional one posing as forward thinking.
I have been in three different schools where hostile takeovers have occurred. These were all privately owned schools, but public ones run the same risk as in the U.S. with their “no child left behind” legislation. If you have a forward thinking philosophy in an organization, its very nature will mean that it makes mistakes in its efforts to pave new ground. The wannabes (those doing the hostile takeover) are lying in the wings ready to pounce because they are so envious of your success that they want a part of it even though they don’t want to do the work that you have done. They know exactly what to do. They criticize the mistakes, blow them up in such a way as to convince others that the organization is falling apart, and then walk in and take over.
The first time this happened to me I was sitting in a meeting after the school had already been dismantled behind our backs. I just stood up and told the leadership what I felt. It was so exhilarating, but I also knew at that point, that the takeover had already occurred. Fortunately I was able to find work to continue the philosophy in a different country. The hostile takeovers of the other two schools where I worked did not happen until about 6 years into those programs, but the patterns were all very similar. At the time that the take overs began to happen, was actually the time that I felt that I was doing my best work, but their untimely intrusion made me throw caution, restraint, and conventional wisdom to the wind so that others in the organization could begin to see what was happening and perhaps survive. As unqualified as the wannabes are in the new philosophy I have to give them a great deal of credit in how to manipulate opinion and use power and even sound like they are intelligent. They have the ability to fool many people, enough at least to get themselves into the leadership. I was forced out in a hostile manner twice because of the wannabes. I don’t regret my speaking out even for one second despite being fired and left without the possibility of work for a year afterwards in both cases. In all three cases the hostile takeovers allowed me to leave one country and then find work in another. I may not have had such rich experiences if it were not for the firings.
The schools and those who did the firing have not been as fortunate as me. Two of the schools have closed and the third is down 40% in enrollment. They turned their backs on the new philosophy and just lost their way. Their expediency was their own suicide note.
I can honestly say that I really didn’t know what I was doing when I spoke out against the hostile takeovers. I acted mostly on intuition. I think that my being fired was already calculated by those doing the takeover so I think that the speaking out may have been aimed more at those left behind than to the thieves who took over the organizations.
Strangely enough I now work in an organization whose philosophy and practice is quite traditional rather than being in one whose philosophy is different than the culture’s mode of operation. I don’t often feel compelled to fight or stand up for stuff because a hostile takeover would be an oxymoron in a traditionally based organization. It is not under threat because it doesn’t put itself out there in a culture-challenging way. So I try to operate here more with wisdom than with trying to save it from a takeover. Standing up and speaking out has its joyful moments. There is nothing quite as exhilarating as putting pressure on wannabes to admit what they are doing. Wisdom is more like having a mathematics teacher put a very difficult problem on the board and then giving you a semester to solve it. As you act with wisdom everything and everyone around you changes, but you are not the target of the deficiencies of those around you.
Baha’u’llah’s challenge to us in using wisdom may well be much more difficult than speaking out against an inconvenient negative truth.