AP photo - John Minchillo
Ann Skeet is the senior director of leadership ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are her own.
Leaders point to something, not just away from something, to describe a future followers can actually imagine. In this moment, when polling in our country reveals broad support for a shared goal of safety in public spaces and protection from gun violence, leaders have a responsibility to serve those goals, to point to a future where such safety and protection is possible.
Leadership is the capacity to translate a vision into reality, as defined by expert Warren Bennis,[i] suggesting that both the words that paint the vision and the actions to implement them matter.
Fresh from a visit to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production of MacBeth, I am reminded of the dangers of equivocation, “a method of obscuring the truth without technically lying,”[ii] particularly when practiced by those in leadership roles. There are many themes in this Shakespeare tragedy exploring how power affects those in leadership. The director of this MacBeth production in Oregon, Jose Luis Valenzuela, zeroed in on how high a cost people with power are willing to pay to keep it.[iii] The play’s voice and text director Rebecca Clark Carey focused on the practice of equivocation that emerges throughout the play. Though both are relevant to today’s political leadership landscape, let’s look more closely at equivocation in leadership.
In Carey’s analysis, she shows us equivocation at work in the tale of MacBeth, a loyal nobleman lured by the prophecies offered by witches into killing the King of Scotland so that he, himself, can become king. When asked why, in the wake of King Duncan’s murder he killed Duncan’s guards, MacBeth replies with rhetorical questions: “Who can be wise, amazed, temperate and furious, loyal and neutral in a moment? Who can refrain that had a heart to love?”[iv]
MacBeth’s words, Carey notes, “give the impression he acted as a loyal and loving subject, while the truth is the deadly opposite.”[v] He extolls his own virtues, distracting those listening to him from the awful truth that he was the murderer.
People in any leadership position who make statements about their goals for a future vision that are true at face value, but not an accurate reflection of their intent, are equivocating. In doing so, they create an impression they will act in pursuit of certain goals when they do not intend to do so. Placating followers in the short-term is not an effective way to lead change.
Leading change is the fundamental task of leadership. Laying blame is not leadership, even if it offers an accurate analysis of potential causes of a problem. Laying blame is a backward-looking exercise, not one of painting a shared future vision, not forward-looking.
Effective leaders accept responsibility for moving forward, describing a shared future vision followers can desire, and these leaders take action to make that happen. They also accept accountability for what happens on their watch.
Leaders can be most effective in selecting words that offer people a connection to that vision in a hopeful way, prompting people to coalesce, thus realizing the vision’s reality. The Markkula Center’s Framework for Ethical Decision Making guides leaders to identify language that will offer the greatest good to the greatest number of people and do the least harm; respect the dignity and rights of individuals; offer solutions that are fair; that promote the common good; and allow each of us to be our best selves. The practice of ethical leadership emphasizes what leaders say and do, but also suggests that the impact leaders have is strengthened or undermined by the leader’s own character.
In today’s social media-washed society, our ability to hear from leaders and followers is instantaneous. This gives outsized weight to the words people in leadership positions choose, the ones they choose to speak first, and the emphasis they choose to place when they speak. If they equivocate with these choices, select words that may be factual in the moment spoken but not genuinely indicative of a future direction forward they intend to pursue, no change will happen, leaving the mission of leadership unfulfilled. As followers, we contribute to the momentum of change by opting for leaders who accept this responsibility to act over those bogged down in the laying of blame. We should seek leaders who, rather than equivocate, paint the future we want and move towards it.
[i] Dianna Daniels Booher (1991) Executive’s portfolio of model speeches for all occasions. page: 34.
[ii] Rebecca Clark Carey, Windows Into MacBeth, Oregon Shakespeare Festival Playbill, 2019, Volume 2, page 55.
[iii] Jose Luis Valenzuela, “From the Director,” Oregon Shakespeare Festival Playbill, 2019, Volume 2, page 52.
[iv] “MacBeth,” Act 2, Scene3. By William Shakespeare, directed by Jose Luis Valenzuela, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 1 August 2019, Thomas Theater, S. Pioneer Street, Ashland, Oregon
[v] Rebecca Clark Carey, Windows Into MacBeth, Oregon Shakespeare Festival Playbill, 2019, Volume 2, page 55.