The supreme quality of leadership is integrity.” –Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The departure of Donald Trump and the arrival of Biden signaled not just a contrast in leadership style, not even contrast in political vision but the contrast in the central values that they both hold dear as leaders.
For Donald Trump, his colourful leadership was characterised by narcissism, prejudice, and aggression. A man who communicated with the world through social media in a demagogue like fashion, creating division fear, and a trail of destruction the likes of which have never been witnessed. President Biden by way of contrast has a longstanding reputation as being a person of tremendous humility, faith understanding and sensitivity.
But perhaps the most notable distinction is in the realm of the principle of Truth. Trump became the unenviable symbol of post truth era pioneering the concept of Fake News and refusing to accept factual evidence or be prepared to listen to anyone about anything. Biden in his inauguration speech it has been noted mentioned some five times the importance and centrality of truth. A principle which should be sacrosanct in a western democracy rather than considered novel and showing courage.
The phrase “fake news” has escaped the confines of the American president’s Twitter feed. Bashar al- Assad and other Syrian officials have trotted out the expression to reject evidence that the government summarily executed prisoners and massacred civilians with chemical weapons. The Chinese military just launched a website for the public to report “fake news,” including “malicious posts,” about the People’s Liberation Army, while the Russian Foreign Ministry now operates a webpage where international media reports that it considers problematic are slapped with a bright-red “FAKE” stamp.
The leaders of Syria, China, and Russia were, of course, dismissing detractors and denying reported misdeeds long before Donald Trump sent his first tweet about “FAKE NEWS.” Other leaders were doing it well before them. But it was Trump, who popularized “Make America Great Again,” brought his marketing genius to bear on this abiding impulse to stamp out criticism and discredit negative media coverage. In deploying the term so promiscuously as the leader of the world’s premier democracy, he has also licensed the rights to use it worldwide—where it has surfaced not just as a useful club to beat back the free press but as a smokescreen for an apparent effort to wipe out an entire ethnic group.
Biden may have hit the ground running, in terms of reversing some of the most controversial of Trumps Policies with a slew of executive orders but reversing the culture and psyche of Fake news will take a generation to unlearn what a generation has been taught. The pervasive nature of Fake news has like a cancerous growth spread to all aspects of society and culture and will perhaps provide Biden with the sternest of tests. Already at the first news conference of the Biden presidency, press secretary Jen Psaki was asked if her priority was to promote the interests of President Biden, or provide “the unvarnished truth”.
She said she had “deep respect for the role of a free independent press” and that she would join the president in bringing “transparency and truth back to government”.
But principles cannot merely be spoken about they must be lived, and it will be when that honesty is tested, when there are mistakes and failures then and only then will there it be self-evident to society that we are in a post fake news generation. It takes tremendous courage for a leader to hold up their hands and admit they made a mistake, that they failed.
Philip Lader was in the 1980s the American ambassador to the court of St James. He tells the story that together with his contemporaries recognised they were likely to be in positions of power and influence in the not-too-distant future. They decided to establish annual retreats when they could share ideas and learn from experts. During the retreat one of the most surprising things that the group discovered about themselves was that despite the group being made up of people that were highly educated and gifted they all found it difficult to admit that they had made mistakes. As Matthew Syed in Black box thinking writes We rationalize. We justify. We deny. We blame others. We struggle to be honest with ourselves and admit we got it wrong.
Joe Biden personally is known to be a man of faith; it was telling that he insisted on attending a mass, prior to his inauguration. Clearly, his faith and the Bible will act as his moral compass. The Torah is clear, as to the centrality of honesty and truth by leaders and the importance of admitting one’s mistakes. From Joseph’s brothers confessing their wrongdoing in his sale, to Isaac trembling after recognising he had misjudged the character of his son Esau. In Judaism the hallmark of leadership is the willingness to maintain one’s integrity in the face of a blunder.
President Biden’s desire to reintroduce Truth into mainstream is perhaps his greatest challenge yet it is the highest calling, and nothing trumps it.