Truth, Ambiguity & the Pursuit of Leadership

Richard C. Harwood, President, The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation As I watched last night’s vice-presidential debate it was enormously revealing about the fundamental challenge Americans confront in this election: which truth to believe. Both candidates, both campaigns, and voters on all sides have talked passionately about the “distortions” in this campaign. There are too many to count. But the argument over these distortions fails to pinpoint our real dilemma. After the first presidential debate I wrote about the clash between competence and certitude. Beneath this clash rests competing narratives about the state of the nation and our work abroad. We could see these competing narratives at work last night. How well is the war in Iraq going? How much progress have we made in ensuring that no child is left behind in our public schools? To what extent have we provided health care to all Americans? How well are American communities protected from future terrorist attacks? On each topic, there is a set of competing facts. And even though these facts are often distorted for partisan gain, the problem is that both sets hold some truth. They create different storylines which appeal to different versions of reality. This competition is most acute during significant periods of change when it becomes difficult to sort out how much progress has been made, and what remains to be done. It can be hard to see if any hope is in the offing. So, for now, two narratives about our current state of affairs co-exist, each one competing for our attention and validation. So long as these narratives are allowed to remain separate, they will clash. The campaign then boils down not to which candidate we like better or who has the better programs, but which story feels more right or comfortable about ourselves and the nation. For now we are stuck with these separate and equal narratives. They lead the nation to greater division as people choose their plots. Only by joining these two competing stories, and helping people interpret their meaning and see how we can move beyond the divides, is it possible to transcend the differences. But truth be told: that would require leadership.