“Rem tene, verba sequentur.”
– Cato the Elder
“Grasp the thing, the words will follow.” Cato’s pithy advice has little traction in the modern world where politicians and business executives routinely deploy word screens to conceal either the bankruptcy of their understanding of the issues facing their people, or their cynical manipulation of the truth. Speaking for hours without saying anything substantial has become an essential qualification for advancement in politics and business, yet it is a shameless parody of the quality without which leadership is impossible: clarity.
Great minds from Plato to Solzhenitsyn have warned of the dire threat posed to civilization by the corruption of language, but George Orwell charted the dangers for a wider audience in his classic essay, Politics and the English Language, published in 1946. “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia.”
Would that those words would reverberate in our chambers of political debate and our deeply dysfunctional workplaces. And as Orwell further pointed out: “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” This, of course, has become an epidemic in recent decades.
My first job on finishing university in the late ‘60s was also my first experience of the power of clarity in the workplace. The position was teaching history at a rough, tough technical school in Rhodesia. The Ministry of Education provisions for the school were a celebration of confusion – ostensibly for boys hoping to enter a trade, the school was one of only two in the country that had an entrance test and it only admitted pupils with above average IQ.
Fortunately, there was no such uncertainty in the mind of the headmaster. He recognised the greater academic potential of the boys being filtered into the school via the entrance test, and believed the technical bias should in fact be a technological bias. His vision was communicated with crystal clarity to teachers, parents, and pupils, and academic excellence quickly replaced vocational training as the school’s primary focus. Everyone knew where they stood and where the bus was going, and the transformation in the atmosphere, character, and achievements of the school was rapid and remarkable.
Clarity is the sine qua non of leadership; doubt and uncertainty are the tools of misleaders. However, in the 1980s and ‘90s another dog-eat-dog, win-at-all-costs mood swept the business world, with a new vocabulary to justify opportunistic policies that hurt both corporations and people. Words like “re-engineering” and “restructuring” tried to hide the fact that many charlatans were simply trying to make a fast buck.
That’s when some business gurus and pop psychologists decided to resurrect the old modernist literary device of “ambiguity”. We were told that “ambiguity tolerance” was good and “ambiguity intolerance” bad, and that leaders who could live with ambiguity were more creative and resilient. Of course, what they really meant was that it was okay to do whatever works for you at any given time. So vision and strategy went out the window and the cynical and deceptive rule of short-termism was upon us. Misleaders revelled in this new age of licence while their employees, confused and insecure, suffered terribly – and suffer still.
This was only one element among many in creating the brave new culture of deceit in the West. Developments like the renewed attack on objective truth by people claiming their own arguments to be absolutely beyond question, and the burgeoning tsunami of narcissism in which people see others merely as means to their own selfish ends, all tended to promote a milieu of uncertainty, disillusionment, and cynicism.
Consider just some of the evidence of the on-going catastrophe of this age of uncertainty: more data and more communication channels than ever have left the general public utterly confused about pivotal issues like climate change, globalisation, and geopolitical tensions; the current worldwide economic malaise is not a systemic but a moral failure with guilty parties on all sides and debt rising to inconceivable levels; the decline of Europe proceeds apace with Greece as the tip of a monster iceberg, while ordinary folk have no idea of what is actually going on. Of course, the malaise is reflected in popular entertainment by a sense of humour that is at once detached and deeply ironic.
A regional manager of a large multinational recently complained to me about his inability to read his CEO’s inconsistent directions, and he ruefully acknowledged that the impact on his extensive team of direct reports was sabotaging their performance. When I suggested that his boss’s unpredictable behaviour was probably the result of similarly random instructions from his superiors overseas, he nodded helplessly, and confided that he was deeply concerned about the CEO’s state of mind. How do you address a lack of understanding, and therefore commitment, that is eroding the unity of the company at every level?
The loss of clarity has delivered a debilitating loss of trust, and that has undermined the entire social fabric of the West. No wonder dysfunctional relationships of all types characterise our society today.
People today, more than ever, want answers, and wanting answers means wanting clarity, which is just another way of saying that they want the truth. To pretend that our limited and fallible human reason puts truth beyond reach, and that each individual has the right to make their own truth is simply duplicitous. And it plays right into the hands of the manipulators.
Most of the people I speak to in the workforce, and that represents a substantial and diverse cross-section, are uncertain and uninspired, and motivated only by an ever-hardening survival instinct. No wonder money has soared in the rankings of happiness factors in the workplace over the past fifteen years. People no longer have leaders in either their workplace or the nation who hold up a vision of a better future, built on virtue, and a clear pathway to get there. They know only misleaders and non-leaders who have abdicated their responsibilities to focus on their own self-aggrandizement.
If this sounds depressing and defeatist, think again because there has never been a time of greater opportunity for leaders to stand up and be counted. Of course, counting also demands clarity, but there are definite signs of a silent shift being driven in unexpected quarters. The number of bright and well-qualified young people now choosing to dedicate their lives to helping the less fortunate, or to start their own enterprises rather than getting trapped, like so many of their friends, in the petty frustrations of the corporate world are expressions of the desire for clarity.
Likewise, the growing disillusionment with sham democratic politics is becoming a real threat, on many fronts, to the social cohesion we have taken for granted for so long. Tragically, state schooling has ensured that the discontent is severely uninformed, and therefore more malleable and more dangerous, but it is still a timely warning that more of the same will no longer do.
Human beings are rational animals; clarity is essential for their well-being. That is why, in this age of misleadership, the opportunity for leaders has never been greater, or more urgently crying out to be seized.