Leadership at the Intersection of Business and Politics: Shift the Narrative
Written By Dick Massimilian
Published Fall 2020
A leader must learn when to push back against a narrative, and when to shift the narrative.
There are certain topics that fall prey to what I call the pink elephant phenomenon. What’s that? Did you know there are no such things as pink elephants? There are no pink elephants flying around. Pink elephants are a figment of your imagination. People who see pink elephants are delusional. Cancel pink elephants.
The harder I try to refute the notion of pink elephants, the stronger and more persistent the idea gets. Pushing back on a narrative, regardless of its inherent validity, only makes the narrative stronger. That is not to say you should always sidestep a narrative. That doesn’t work either. Here are two examples.
The oil and gas industry has long ignored the climate change/green-new-deal lobby’s claims that hydrocarbons are ruining the planet. With scattered exceptions, the industry has preferred to go about its business of lowering energy costs making the US energy independent. As a result, we have approximately 100 Congressional Democrats sponsoring legislation that will reverse both accomplishments and a presidential ticket on record as wanting to ban fracking. At this juncture, attempting to refute the claims of the green lobby invites a chorus of opprobrium and accusations of “ignoring science.” Debating the green lobby on its terms is counterproductive; their narrative is in place and they have set the parameters of the discussion. How about, as Alex Epstein and the Center for Industrial Progress do, making the case that hydrocarbons’ benefits to humanity far outweigh their downslides? That is a different narrative.
How about the claim that systemic racism and the lack of social, economic and political power make it impossible for some Americans to succeed? Is there evidence to contradict that claim? Sure. But what happens if you do? Ultimately, you make the narrative you are trying to refute louder and stronger. Far better to construct an alternative narrative, e.g., this is a great and noble nation, one which, while far from perfect, has provided more freedom and opportunity for more people than any nation in history?
In the Covid era, I have seen superb leaders in beleaguered industries stand before their people and shift the narrative from, “are we going to make it?” to “there are always opportunities and we are the team to find them. We’re going to come out of this stronger than ever.” Will all of those leaders and their people succeed? I don’t know? But I do know who I’d want to work for. And I know who I am betting on.
Shift the narrative.
Read my other articles in the series, “Leadership at the Intersection of Business and Politics”:
How to Navigate an Increasingly Politicized World
Everything Said is Said by Someone