Thursday, January 3, 2013

In Praise of Inconsistency

Emerson famously said -- in a passage frequently misquoted and misunderstood -- "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines." Emerson believed that no great leader -- indeed, no thoughtful, complete person -- seeks consistency but, like a mariner tacking to-and-fro with the ever-changing winds, simply thinks (and does) what they believe to be right at the moment. According to Emerson, one should seek to do the right thing, under the circumstances as they appear today, and should not get hung up on ensuring consistency between what one does today and what one did and said yesterday. If present thought and action appear inconsistent with prior thought and action, so be it.

One does not follow Emerson's advice easily. Deep within us -- products as we are of the rationalization that characterizes modernity -- lies an powerful urge to be consistent. So powerful is this urge -- and so powerful is the inner logic of the social drive to subject all things to rational calculation -- that we balk at any line of thinking, any policy of action, that seems to conflict with what we thought or did in the past. We criticize those who fail to live up to the ideal of consistency and our social order and its set of deeply ensconced values treats them as unreliable, untrustworthy, undeserving of high position or great responsibility. More than a mere hobgoblin, consistency serves as a core value of late capitalist modernity, one ignored at great peril to one's reputation and authority.

And yet Emerson may have hit upon one of the major differences between leaders and managers. Managers work within systems, within bodies of rules and practices, and so their actions need to be consistent one with the other and all with (and within) the system. Since they work within rationalized systems, replete with rules, precedents, standardized procedures, and regularized decision processes, managers are expected -- and expect themselves -- to think, work, and behave in a consistent manner, one tied closely to "the way things are done" and have always been done. Precedent inevitably drives the work of the manager and, given the press of business, generally little time exists to reflect upon the precedents or to reinterpret them creatively. (In fact, one of the charms of the legal profession, for many though hardly all of us, is the opportunity to reflect on precedent and use it creatively to achieve new ends -- which is not to deny that most lawyers, most of the time, act as managers of legal business.) If I am expected to manage a particular part of a business, say its financial functions, my creativity is necessarily limited by constraints that precede me and by practices that have been put in place to render the work of management predictable. As with all systems of rules, predictability is crucial. To a great extent, predictability can be achieved because rules necessarily place limits on the actions of those who carry out particular roles within the system to which the rules apply.

Leaders differ from managers -- a statement commonly made in the leadership literature, but one too little theorized. Leadership is not simply a matter of power or motivational qualities, though the belief that it is allows the leadership industry to fool us into believing that many can become leaders if only they are endowed with the "right stuff" (usually through pricey seminars and books offered for sale by so-called, and usually self-appointed, experts). The category of "leaders" is considerably smaller than the leadership industry would have us believe -- a topic that deserves more attention than I can give it in the present essay. Beyond  positions of authority or power, beyond the ability to motivate followers, leaders must possess the ability, and most importantly the willingness, to work outside of systems and rules and practices. Though they need not always or even often do so, leaders differ from managers in their willingness to go beyond the rules as laid down, to step outside the circle of the acceptable that is defined by precedents and regulations. W.E.B. Dubois said of Lincoln that,
in that curious human way he was big inside. He had reserves and depths and when habit and convention were torn away there was something left to Lincoln -- nothing to most of his contemners. There was something left, so that at the crisis he was big enough to be inconsistent -- cruel, merciful; peace-loving, a fighter; despising Negroes and letting them fight and vote; protecting slavery and freeing slaves. He was a man -- a big, inconsistent, brave man.

Managers can be defined by the systems within which they operate; their identity can be captured by the rules set down for the roles they play. They are what Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills referred to as "role-determined": they are "instituted" because they work within, and their functions and positions are given definition by, the institutions (structures, roles, and rules) inside which they operate. Strip away the habits and conventions, and there is nothing (or precious little) left.

Leaders, however, can take on "role-determining" traits, defining and redefining the confines of their roles. Such agents may truly be said to be leaders rather than "mere managers." I do not mean to belittle managers with this phrase, but only to insist on the difference between managers and those more properly called leaders. While leaders may be managers, when they act as leaders they often engage in stretching roles to fit a new way of seeing institutional activities, goals, and functions. Indeed, depending upon the circumstances in which they act, leaders may engage in "new modeling" the rules and systems out of which they operate. In these instances, leaders become "role-creating" (an idea first suggested to me by Robert C. Tucker), re-fashioning the rules, procedures, functions, roles, and other features of the institution in which they act. Leaders of either the role-determining or role-creating sort do not routinely "play by the rules" except to the extent that they make (or re-envision) the rules. Consequently, they often eschew consistency, for consistency requires doing and saying what one has done and said before -- and that is precisely what leaders must be willing to forgo. Leaders must be willing to jettison the "foolish consistency" of "little minds."

The fact is, as David Gergen has noted, "[l]eaders are often those who see fresh, historic opportunities and seize them, even at the expense of their own consistency." Leaders must be flexible, agile, able to respond to circumstances that offer openings for achievement. Leaders must be willing to "new model" their group, their organization, their nation -- and they must not let a "foolish consistency" interfere with what a changed environment and a new view presents to them as the right thing to do, the right way to move. The willingness to constantly examine one's life, one's views, one's circumstances -- to explore the unique concatenation of events that forms the present and to reflect upon how one should act within it -- lies at the heart of good leadership. Leaders re-envision the present, which flows out of a past they seek to understand. And they affirmatively move into the future rather than cling to the past, creating new models rather than dutifully adhering to the old. The future into which they thrust themselves differs from what has gone before and therefore necessarily fails to be consistent with it. Leaders act in a reflexive manner, closely examining the order of things around them with a craving to remake it. Leaders possess the ability and the desire to change in the face of change, to create, to reconstitute the world around them, consistency be damned.

Politicians frequently criticize each other for "waffling," for changing their views, for shifting with the wind of public opinion (or the opinion of their "base"), or for giving away the ranch by compromising on important principles. In this they reflect the rationality of modernity that sees virtue in strict adherence to rules, roles, and patterns. The charge of "flip-flopping" appears to be part of the central repertoire of political campaigning; campaign organizations, party spokespeople, and the media purvey the notion that a willingness to compromise reflects a lack of principles, a failing talked about as if it were fatal to respectability. This gives rise to the bizarre twistings and turnings of politicians seeking to show how their current position truly parallels previous positions, even when it is clear to nearly everyone that it does not.

Compromise, in this way of looking at things, is always suspect, a vice more than a virtue. And yet at the same time, we hear a lot these days about the importance of compromise, especially from those (justifiably) critical of the stalemate in Washington. Civic educators praise compromise as a virtue essential for the success of democracy; theorists of democracy tell us that, without compromise, majority rule cannot work. Compromise is, indeed, an important value for both leaders and followers, in nations, organizations, groups. Woodrow Wilson famously refused to compromise on the League of Nations Covenant, failing first to keep in mind that any agreement worked out in Europe must get the advice and consent of the Senate and failing second to compromise with senatorial leaders, to give a little once it became clear they were unwilling to go along with the covenant as presented to them. Refusal to compromise, as we learn from Wilson, can be tragic. A rigid adherence to principle can undermine collective action and collective well-being. Politics, as Max Weber made clear in his "vocation lectures," is no place for saints or those who aspire to be saints; politics demands a willingness to give and take, to settle for the second best, to compromise in order to get something done. Politics, according to Weber, demands an "ethic of responsibility" to temper the "ethic of ultimate ends" espoused by the idealist and the saint. And the argument holds good not just for politics, but for all circumstances of group activity where leadership can take place. Leaders must have the ability and the willingness to compromise, though it is wrong to imagine that they will always do so, for the appropriateness of compromise depends on the leader's assessment of the many factors and layers of the situation at hand.

Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski stated in his essay "In Praise of Inconsistency," "humanity has survived only thanks to inconsistency," for "total consistency is tantamount in practice to fanaticism, while inconsistency is the source of tolerance." Leadership entails the ability to assess circumstances to determine whether one must rigidly adhere to one's principles and previous positions, or whether doing so is the sort of foolishness Emerson had in mind -- or worse, whether doing so is a sign of fanaticism. Notice that this means that one need not be consistently inconsistent, inconsistent "all the way down" as it were. Rather, as Kolakowski concludes, we should be inconsistently inconsistent, keeping always a healthy reserve of uncertainty about the rightness of what we have done in the past, and about the rightness of our own current view and the error of those opposed to us. Leaders strive to be comfortable with this kind of uncertainty, never fully succeeding but never resigning themselves to the warm snugness of the rules laid down or the contentment of consistency.

1 comment:

  1. Bravo, Kevin.

    A compelling essay that will help me continue to preach and teach the virtue of "context is everything"