What Do Great Leaders and Fake News Have in Common?

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Have you ever had an experience like this?  A colleague says to you, “You have great vision and people skills. You should throw your hat in the ring to be managing partner.” Or, maybe an acquaintance says, “I am currently the chair of XYZ committee, and you are my first and only choice for vice-chair.” Then the person elaborates on how wonderful you are and all the ways in which this position would benefit you professionally. In such situations, you may find yourself feeling flattered but reluctant. Myriad questions filter through your mind. Do I really have time for this? Would I even want the responsibility? What opportunities would this provide?  Do I have what it takes to succeed? Regardless of how uninterested you may have been initially, once the seed has been planted, you can’t help but consider the possibility.

It only takes a moment for a leader to mention an idea, but then our minds run with it, weighing options, thinking through scenarios and fantasizing about successes for days, weeks or even months. Planting seeds and inviting others to step into leadership roles is a rarely discussed leadership skill, and yet it is critically important. After all, great leaders require strong lieutenants, managers, and champions to support their initiatives. Did Gandhi do it all himself? Is Elon Musk the only leader at Tesla? Of course not. In order to accomplish anything significant we need a pyramid of the leaders under us, sharing their ideas, and offering their energy and support.

What about the other side of the spectrum?  How is this related to fake news? Here is an example that provides a parallel.  In 2013-2014, the political situation was heating up in Ukraine and the Russian state media was publishing numerous fake news stories about Ukraine. Prior to war breaking out, Russia stated that 143,000 refugees from Ukraine were entering Russia. A Ukrainian journalist called Russia's Federal Migration Service and asked if the story were true. The official he spoke with confirmed his belief that the story was false, but said that she had orders from Moscow to prepare places for refugees. (Listen to this NPR podcast for the full story.)

At the time, the journalist thought that Russia was just trying to inspire fear and distrust; but months later, when refugees did start streaming over the border from Ukraine into Russia, it became clear that the fake stories were actually influencing people’s behavior. Leaving one’s home is a very tough decision and one that few people would take lightly, even in the face of significant danger. However, when you are told that 143,000 people have already fled, it makes going with the crowd seem like an obvious and prudent course. Using fake news, Russia planted ideas in people’s heads which prompted a crisis that enabled them to rationalize a military intervention.

Planting ideas in people’s heads is a powerful tool; and, like fire, automobiles, or biochemistry it can be used for good or ill. Leaders make suggestions designed to help others grow, contribute and manifest their best selves. Fake news can be used to stoke hatred, fear and misunderstanding. Ideas and information are so freely available in the modern world that we sometimes forget how powerful they are.  Nonetheless, leaders (and by “leaders,” I mean anyone who wants to make a difference in the world) would do well to remember the immense influence available from offering a suggestion or sharing a vision.  While some people are naturally drawn to the spotlight or to positions of influence, others who would in many cases be more insightful, inclusive or inspiring may not think of themselves as leaders until someone opens the door. Simply telling a friend that she has leadership potential, asking a quiet colleague to share his thoughts in a meeting or inviting a smart young person to apply for a leadership role are easy and powerful ways to nurture leadership potential in your organization.