There's a line written long ago by Thomas Jefferson and his Declaration of Independence co-authors, a phrase we know by heart, but now, more than ever, need to remember: "We hold these truths to be self-evident." Those seven words and the list of truths they preceded (e.g., that we are all created equal, have inalienable rights, etc.) weren't penned as poetic hyperbole. They were the result of taking stock in a deeply uncertain time. They enabled a necessary return to what was core, lasting, and vital. The listing of those self-evident truths was nothing short of a call to attention and a guide to action--not just for a distant king, but more importantly for every colonist in the fledgling United States as well. Jefferson's idea of self-evident truths weren't a map telling Americans how to go forward. They were a compass. Self-evident truths still are.
These times in which we live are troubled too. As leaders, as organizations, as people, we have been upended in countless ways by the uncertainty in our midst. In such an environment, our tendency is to aim our efforts at fighting the fires immediately before us. In the founders' day, those daily fires took form as unfair taxation, unreasonable search and seizure, and a volatile economy manipulated at the whim of a mercurial king. To be sure, dealing with the daily threats of uncertain times is necessary. And for a time, that's where the colonists put their energies. But it's easy to inadvertently establish a cycle of fighting the immediate and, even if unintentionally, put off thoughts about how to navigate the future, not just "someday," but right now. Though this promises short-term gain, it's inevitably a no-win strategy. Breaking free of it is where simple truths come in.
Before you go looking for your own simple truths, it helps to have an idea of what to look for. In my book on the truth, patterns, and key success factors behind creative genius, The Language of Man, I offer the following simple guidelines for arriving at simple truths:
- Simple truths are shared. They are something everyone has access to and, at their core, knows to be true.
- They are inextinguishable as well. They may get covered over at times by the day-to-day of how works gets done, but they stubbornly and thankfully remain and resurface.
- What's most true forms into patterns. Over time, even in uncertain times, simple truths remain, regardless of application or even who leads. Truths that don't may be one person's truth, but they are not the simple truths we seek for reorienting a team.
- Simple truths are not rules. As true and consistent as they are however, simple truths are underpinnings, points of wisdom, and ongoing guideposts for our journey, current and future--not a recipe.
To get a deeper sense of what a simple truth is, think about what leaders and their organizations typically turn to instead when things go haywire and the unexpected keeps surfacing. They look to the past and for the tried and true--the business plan that worked in another time, the familiar measures of performance, the execution details they know by heart. Yet comforting as these things can at first feel, every one is based on facts and assumptions that uncertainty has a nasty habit of obliterating. There is, however, a powerful alternative.
What a venture stands for, what shaped its value proposition from the start, the assets it has at hand available for more than one use--all of the things that were simple and true when you first built the model hold real power even now. How they get deployed might need to change, but they are no less powerful as a filter for decision-making and setting strategic direction. Consciously returning to consider their value now, in new conditions, and to validate or alter their current expression and use, this is what it means to return to simple truths. Sometimes our truths aren't easy to face. Yet there is no truer asset you can count in troubled times. That isn't always self-evident in the often blinding light of the daily fires you must fight. But if you want to ensure you're around to fight another day and another being that, it's time to change things.