October 2015

. . . helping organizations find solutions to people-related problems

Time, Tense, Truth, and Leadership

Rest assured that this writing is not about politics or ideology. It is not. It is about leadership, prompted by observations on recent events in our national and international life. Day in and day out, we hear unending allegations that "there is no accountability," "no one is held accountable." Yet we are repeatedly barraged with the refrain "I take responsibility for that."

The juxtaposition of these two overused, now pedestrian, and seemingly connected concepts should alert us to a grave problem. That problem is that our thinking as a nation has become corrupted over time by our continuing abuse of the English language, readily documented on the morning and the evening news, local and national. Examples include the abuse of like and as, allude and refer, and many others, where "journalists" and other commentators, who used to be educated in the importance of accurate language, have become utterly sloppy. The problem has reached such proportions that substandard communication is accepted with little reference to what words really mean. The first rule of classical debate is always: Define your terms.

Now what does this have to do with leadership? Well, most effective leaders would assign great value to the ability to communicate as an essential element in leading others. The recent hearings on Benghazi, while documenting our national leadership's inability to think clearly and pursue a focused line of questioning, most notably provide abundant evidence that leadership has lost its way in the weeds of distraction, winding rabbit trails, and the inability to discern and communicate truth. While we fatuously debate whether black lives matter, we argue that the facts surrounding the murder of four heroic Americans make "no difference." At the same time the leader in charge concedes that she "takes responsibility for that," she contends that she relied on the judgment of highly qualified, competent security professionals, thereby excusing her own lack of action because she was purportedly practicing good leadership by delegating and not micromanaging. Whatever happened to "The buck stops here"?

Amid this incredible morass of poor thinking and miscommunication on all sides, we the audience should be asking where are the "disconnects." Isn't there something about this incredibly mismanaged and misled scenario that doesn't make sense? The answer, as simple as it sounds, is that she and the journalists and commentators reporting events should be noting that what she did not say is "that I am responsible" rather than "I take responsibility for that." This effort to skirt real responsibility while trying to appear "accountable" through the clever manipulation of language is a major moral and societal leadership dilemma and failing that permeates our current culture and threatens our survival as a unified, rational, civilized, free nation. "Being responsible" demands taking action while "taking responsibility for that" falsely implies that action has already occurred. Accountability is only discernible when sanctions are applied. When no sanctions--rewards or punishments--are exercised by responsible authority, accountability is nowhere to be found, an all too common result of poor leadership in today's world.

As you listen to leaders in the world, in our great nation, and in your organization, listen carefully to the language they use. Is it clear, direct, and honest, or is it crafted in such a way as to permit various interpretations, promote confusion, and provide multiple escape routes for the "leader"? The Tower of Babel is alive and well.

As a leader yourself, recognize that your ultimate authority to inspire the following of others comes not from your title or the size of your pay check, but from your integrity and your ability to command the respect of those you lead. No matter how quickly our world is changing, certain principles are universal and timeless. One of them is that the authority of effective and enduring leaders is always earned from those they lead, not simply conferred from above.

Time, tense, truth, and leadership are inextricably connected.

Warm regards

Dave Martin


HRA Services, Inc.

"Applying Systematic Thinking to the Human Dimension"