Archive for January 2011

‘Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?’

January 12th, 2011 — 2:48pm

On January 10th, I was driving to a business school to lead a symposium on leadership in a networked world. On the radio, I heard the debate about whether the vitriol common in American politics today triggered the carnage in Tucson, Arizona on January 8th. (A man had attacked a centrist US Congresswoman; she is recovering from a serious bullet wound to her head, while six others are dead and twelve more are wounded.)

Some people – typically those on the political left – decried the language used by those on the right. Their Exhibit A was a map Sarah Palin, their bête-noir, put up before the recent US mid-term elections: it had a marksman’s crosshairs drawn on 20 congressional districts (including Ms. Giffords’) held by the Democrats. Others – typically those on the political right – accused the left of politicizing a tragedy. The killer didn’t belong to any right wing group, and quite possibly was psychotic. Words and images like Ms. Palin’s map were merely rhetorical political devices, not incitements to violence; linking these to a psychotic’s actions was wrong.

I considered focusing the symposium on the link between words and action. Ultimately, I chose not to; this issue was key to leadership, but not necessarily to the concept of a networked world. What would I have said if I had made a different decision? Without a doubt, I would have begun with the words in the title to this post.

Henry II, King of England and a part of today’s France, supposedly uttered them from a sickbed. (Other records suggest that he said, “What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?”) The priest in question was Thomas Beckett, his one-time closest friend and confidant, who as Archbishop of Canterbury, had successfully blocked a key law Henry championed. Four of Henry’s knights acted on his words. In one version of what happened next, they went to Canterbury to kill Beckett and succeeded. In another version, they went to arrest Beckett, but backed off and went to bed when he resisted. The next day, they again tried to drag Beckett out of the cathedral. Somehow Beckett got hit on his head. This accident triggered bloodshed: the knights then drew their swords and slew him.

Henry might simply have been delirious – or merely frustrated – when he spoke. In doing so, whether he intended it or not, he set in motion Beckett’s assassination. The four knights were not mentally ill; they acted deliberately to please their lord. They might not have intended to commit murder, but even in the passion-of-the-moment version of the events, by-standers became “collateral damage.” In either version, I doubt they would have acted against “God’s personal representative in England” had they not felt that their lord was implicitly urging them to do so.

Far from issues of life and death, the essential lesson of this story for any business manager is simple: Words of those in positions of authority always have consequences, even if they aren’t immediately palpable. This lesson is valid for positive words as well, and most annoyingly, for words – positive and negative – that aren’t spoken when they could have been.

Why? Because most people try to fit into their chosen group. Because they value praise from their superiors. Because they try to find meaning for the humdrum of their daily work. Because they routinely look to their superiors’ words for cues about what they should do. Because they analyze whom a new boss speaks to first; if he/she talks to them, they conclude they have been anointed, but if he/she talks to someone they consider incompetent, they conclude the boss has “been captured by the wrong people.”  Because they read much into whom their boss has lunch with, ignoring the fact that the lunchtime companion may merely be an old friend. Much of this scrutiny is way over the top, but there is no escaping from the fact that it happens every day in every organization, including informal ones.

So, if you aspire to positions of authority or leadership, teach yourself to be very careful about the words you use. Conversely, if you don’t accept – or don’t want to live by – this lesson, don’t seek positions of authority or leadership. You certainly shouldn’t be given such a position, for you will have the potential to do enormous damage.

Finally, it is worth noting that both the right and the left in today’s debate are wrong. The right is disclaiming a link for which there is tons of evidence. The left is applying the link way beyond what is reasonable: The issue is not vitriol per se, but its source. Identical words spoken by two people will have divergent impact, if one is an average citizen and the other, someone with a substantial following. The words the latter uses in difficult and/or emotionally charged situations can give us insight into whether he/she has the capacity for greatness or whether he/she merely is a power hungry mortal. Unfortunately, instead of using such situations as guides, we convince ourselves that, everyone, without restriction, who is on “our side” is capable of greatness, while everyone, without restriction, who is on “their side” is a power hungry mortal.

My best wishes for this New Year. May it rise beyond the horrific sights from Tucson.

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