Words often introduce, explain, and even motivate actions. Without words to help define a context, an action might be interpreted any number of ways, depending on our biases, backgrounds, needs, and values.

As leaders, we must understand the implications of this relationship between words and actions, and we must use our knowledge to make choices with care and integrity.

That sounds ridiculously obvious. Yet many leaders speak and act ridiculously, scandalously even.

But it’s true at our level, too. It’s true at your level—as a parent, sibling, mentor, peer, manager, and executive. Way down here at our level, who has not chosen his or her words poorly at some point, even during the past few days?

Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (ca. 35 – ca. 100)

Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (ca. 35 – ca. 100)

The Roman rhetorician, Quintilian (née, Marcus Fabius Quintilianus), is famous for his belief that the ideal orator is “a good man speaking well.” In Roman times, orators represented a high form of civil servant, devoted to “pleading or arguing for a cause” on behalf of someone less able, in front of a court or assembly. It was a high honor to be selected to represent a cause in Quintilian’s day, akin to a man being elected to the highest office in the land in our times.

In his inaugural speech at the beginning of the year, President Obama said, “For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies.”

Powerful words move people to action.

From our school lessons we don’t remember actions, we remember words: “But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out.” or “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,” or “I have a dream.”

Berenson contends the Chinese government’s words—their opacity—dared he and other “Western thriller writers to invent disaster.”

But is this really the case?

When I first read Quintilian in college, I didn’t get it. Who’s to say whom or what a good man is, I wondered, mulling over the nature of subjectivity. Over the years, though, I started paying more attention, and now I know what a good man or woman is. So do you. We all do. And we know immediately when we hear someone who is not good speaking or acting.

Quintilian’s point is well-taken: Anyone can stand up and make a persuasive argument; however the ideal is that the person making the arguments does so from a place of strong moral fiber, solid values, and spotless integrity.

Of course, it’s not that simple: We have to consider our First Amendment rights, the laws of our land, and the right to freedom of speech. We must understand that our Constitution says that “criticism of the government and advocacy of unpopular ideas that people may find distasteful or against public policy, such as racism, are generally permitted.”

So where do we draw the line?

Should Berenson go ahead and write a riveting spy thriller, ignoring the high likelihood it will propagate at least some misinformation among its American audience, if not worse, kindling a deeper mistrust of China than that which already exists, and which Berenson himself condemns?

Or should he desist, perhaps instead turning his focus and intellect to helping Americans better understand the issues he knows so well from his experiences abroad?

Every one who leads today is in the same bind.

What if Berenson used this test to make a decision: Will this novel support or detract from my country’s aspirations? Will it support or undermine our future relationships?

In our time, we must show exactly this kind of restraint—especially with the insights we have about our own culture and our aspirations.

© John Dila 2009