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The Red Pill: How much truth can a leader take?

‘This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember: all I’m offering is the truth. Nothing more.’ Such are the words of Morpheus in the cult film ‘The Matrix’. Morpheus offers our hero, Neo, a stark choice. Those of you who have watched the film know that Neo took the red pill. Neo chose to face the facts. But what choice do we make in our coaching and leadership? How much truth can we take?

In psychological terms, the blue pill represents denial. Denial has got itself a bad name yet it is a perfectly natural and useful tool for dealing with times of acute stress. If you are diagnosed with a life-threatening disease it is perfectly reasonable to temporarily block out the shock of this news in order to allow you to keep functioning on a day-to-day basis. If you are sacked from your senior leadership role denial may also be part of the process of temporarily protecting your ego from the full force of the blow and so enabling you to adapt to the new situation over a period of time. Denial is a pain-killer; it is psychological aspirin.

the red pill

So far so good. It seems that denial is good news. What’s the problem? The problem is that we can become addicted to the use of denial and therefore fail to take timely and appropriate action to resolve underlying issues. Continuing the pain-killer analogy, currently I have tooth ache and I take codeine to relieve the pain. However, I have booked an appointment with the dentists to fill the infected tooth and afterwards I will no longer use the codeine. This is a good thing because the packet warns me that codeine is a mild opiate and if I use the pills for more than three days I risk becoming addicted to them.

If we become addicted to denial as our blue pill drug of choice then it impairs our decision-making because we are not allowing ourselves access to the full facts of the situation. More seriously, if we are in a leadership role then this can have grave consequences for the people we lead. For unlike the use of aspirin, the systemic use of denial is contagious. The leader turns a blind eye and, before you know what has happened, the whole team has turned a blind eye. Why wouldn’t they? Over time, we can create whole organisations and societies that are addicted to denial as a means of getting by. We create bubbles of denial. Inside the bubble, life is sweet. Outside the bubble, there is carnage. But if you are in the bubble you don’t care. Why would you? You just keep taking the blue pills. Until one day, the bubble bursts…and the heavens come crashing in.

The tools of challenging coaching are designed to prick the bubbles of denial before they take hold in a leadership system. Whether it be the use of feedback, accountability, courageous goal-setting, tension or systems thinking these are all antidotes to denial. They are all red pills. Red pills to be administered on a daily basis in any situation where blue-pill thinking has gone from being a short-term, effective pain-killer to being a debilitating and endemic leadership blindness.

Now you may read this and think it is all very well but it doesn’t apply to my leadership or my organisation. But, in a world infected with denial, how would you know this to be true? How would you know what you are missing until it is too late? You’ll only know if you keep taking the red pills. You’ll only know if you keep demanding the truth.

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