The One Big Takeaway From The Covington/Lincoln Memorial Social Media Meltdown

By now there’s a very good chance you’ve already heard something intense, partisan, and angry about the protests that happened near the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Martin Luther King Day. But on the off chance you’ve somehow missed the commotion, here’s a brief rundown. Social media platforms went crazy over viral videos showing encounters between a Native American elder and a group of boys from Covington Catholic High School, who were in Washington as part of a pro-life march. Were the boys the villains of the story, taunting the Omaha tribal leader with racially motivated abuse? Or were they victims of a media conspiracy designed to manufacture a conflict where none existed? Everybody, it seems, had an opinion, one worth shouting about at the top of their lungs. The fervor has yet to die down; the last time I looked, the White House was wading into the fray.

There is one and only one major takeaway I’ve picked up from all of this drama. Figure out what happened before you start drawing conclusions and making accusations.

This critical takeaway ties in directly to two of my favorite themes, accountability and truth. Accountable leaders don’t confuse righteous indignation with a responsibility to get to the bottom of things – to find the truth. In the social media firestorm that erupted Monday, it seemed like everybody suddenly had an opinion. The problem was, hardly anyone with an opinion had bothered to do the digging necessary to determine what actually took place. (This Washington Post video does a pretty good job of summarizing the various perspectives in what was clearly a chaotic situation, but it didn’t show up until Tuesday.)

Here’s my point: We should learn how to take a collective deep breath as a nation … and leaders, in particular, should learn to pause and take a deep breath. If it’s more important for you to score points for your chosen cause right away than it is to figure out what the facts look like, then my friend, you are not an accountable leader. Accountable leaders commit to starting from the truth. If that means they don’t get a thousand retweets on Twitter, so be it. They start from the truth anyway.

The truth is, this was and is a complicated situation with a lot of moving parts. And let’s face it. Facebook and Twitter and Instagram users sometimes don’t leave themselves a lot of room for nuance.  Lots of people wanted to be the first to get out front with an opinion on the story at the Lincoln Memorial. So they built a narrative that suited them and didn’t bother too much about the details. There was a sudden rush to judgment on the left, and then a predictably sudden rush to judgment on the right.  Here’s the problem. Accountable leaders do not rush to judgment. Period.

Right now, people are looking for new ways to spin this story into something that stays inflammatory. They’re looking for ways to score points, either for one side or for the other. They’re looking for attention. And they’re willing to mislead and oversimplify in order to get it.

Make no mistake: Accountability and deception cannot coexist.

Whether you’re a team leader, or a CEO or an activist, or a political commentator, or a local politician, or the President of the United States, if you’re more interested in inflaming people’s emotions than you are about telling them the truth, then you need to get clear on this: you are not accountable. And you should either become accountable … or step aside for someone who is.

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