Why leaders must inspire with truthful narratives - avoiding the truth gap and the narrative gap

Leaders tell stories - to their teams, to the organisation they’re part of, and to the wider world. They are able to create clear, coherent and inspiring stories, despite the complexities and contradictions that exist for organisations.

These aren’t just fairytales. These narratives are critical to how organisations operate. In the private sector: business plans, market briefings, product marketing are all acts of storytelling. In the public sector: spending review bids, business cases and ministerial briefings are too.

But telling stories well requires striking a balance between the power of the story, and its grounding in everyday realities. When trying to achieve this balance, it’s possible for leaders to get it wrong, and make two very different mistakes.

The truth gap

The first mistake is to create a truth gap - a problematic distance between the story and its grounded reality. It’s when everything’s fine with a major project, as the delivery is delayed and unravelling. It’s when you’re cutting-edge, as teams struggle with arcane technology and over-bearing governance.


A truth gap might be accidental - not having the right information at the right time. It might be nobly intentioned: bending the truth a little too far in pursuit of inspiration, clarity or coherence. It might, cynically, be self-interested: bending the truth in pursuit of personal gain at the expense of others.

Whatever the reason, the truth gap is problematic because it leads to misalignment and mistrust throughout an organisation.

The recent Post Office scandal in the UK is a rare situation where the size of a truth gap within an organisation was revealed publicly. Stories were told of a major IT project which had succeeded, and of a resulting IT system which didn’t make mistakes. These stories persisted for years and strayed far from the truthful reality, eroding trust, decision making, and judgement, with devastating impact.

But sadly, these truth gaps are all too common. Large IT programmes predictably fail, yet they typically exist within institutional cultures which encourage leaders to mask this failure. 

Programmes, according to the stories which emerge from their leaders, consistently appear to be doing better than they really are (an instance often described as ‘watermelon syndrome’ - green on the outside, red in the middle).

Another common truth gap is when organisations overstate their use of the cutting edge, and understate their reliance on the outdated. It looks good to say you’re using artificial intelligence or augmented reality. But too much hype creates a bubble, destined to pop when the illusion can’t be maintained.

The narrative gap

The second mistake is to introduce a narrative gap. Rather than telling stories which stray too far from the truth, narrative gaps are formed by stories which are not clear enough, not coherent enough, and not inspiring enough. Or, perhaps, are absent altogether.


A very common narrative gap in organisations is when the stories told by leaders feel empty of purpose. For instance, when the end of the story is achieving an arbitrary change to efficiency, productivity, quality, or uptake of ‘best practice’. Or simply, to ‘be the best’ in the market, domain or industry. These are desirable things, but they don’t tell a story. For real impact, leaders need to tell a story defined by clear intentionality and purpose.

In government it is hard to avoid a narrative gap. It requires policy making teams, delivery teams and operational teams to tell the same single story, connecting government services to policy purpose - an approach which remains radical in the UK, where these strategic stories are often kept very separate.

In organisations subject to market competition, the most powerful stories might be considered an organisation’s greatest commercial secrets, allowing you to stay ahead of competitors. Yet, transparency and effective communication to teams can itself become a significant competitive advantage. And it doesn’t matter if your competitors can hear your strategic story, if they aren’t capable of taking advantage of it quickly enough.

A narrative gap slowly erodes the alignment and energy of organisations. It makes organisations sludgy - getting things done become slow, hard work, and unrewarding.

The uncurated truth

As well as being careful to avoid narrative and truth gaps, leaders should be wary of telling an uncurated truth: over-exposing problems before the solutions are understood, or sharing raw information without a context-setting story. This uncurated truth undermines the storyline, and therefore the purpose of the story.

For example, a leader may need to create the conditions for a major transformation, and know they need to attract talent and create a widespread sense of optimism in the belief that major challenges can be overcome. This could easily be undermined by a negative counter-narrative about historic failed change attempts, legacy technology, broken process, toxic culture, or personal and commercial disincentives to change. Even if these things are true, they shouldn’t be allowed to eclipse the hope garnered from leaders’ positive stories.

Truthful narratives

Organisations need truthful narratives: clear stories, told with integrity, balancing inspirational impact with groundedness. Truthful narratives are the sweet spot, avoiding both the truth gap and the narrative gap.


This isn’t easy - the truthful narrative can be counter-cultural. It might contradict the narratives told by other leaders or challenge popular ideas. When falsehoods have persisted for a long time, the truth becomes powerful and threatening.

But more important for leaders than maintaining the status quo should be making the lived reality of their teams feel like part of the story. They must take the time to listen to those around them who are connected to different truths, such as the health of the workforce & supply chain, the health of technology, the quality of data, and the performance of services & products.

Perhaps the most important tool for a leader-storyteller, is the ability to adapt the same story for different audiences, whilst maintaining the same overall narrative. The story told to teams who experience the worst of unsolved problems must acknowledge these problems. The story told to markets and media needs to be far simpler, more optimistic, but mustn’t prove contradictory or dismissive of the underlying problems.

The ability to tell truthful narratives as leaders - either within the organisation, or outwards to other audiences - is a crucial leadership skill. Proficiency in doing so will determine everything from the quality of communication, to the degree of trust, to the levels of motivation and morale within an organisation.

Essentially, stories - and the truthfulness behind them - shapes culture.

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