Wisdom does not begin with asking how a thing will be done. Wisdom begins by asking whether a thing should be done at all.
Following World War I, Winston Churchill wrote a book about those cataclysmic years titled The World Crisis. In his chapter entitled “The Vials of Wrath,” Churchill penned these words about the war. “The nations possessing this strength did not know they had it until the war called it forth. They had unprecedented ‘resources in force, in substance, in virtue.'”
Churchill is describing the tremendous power of people, who, when formed together, can be organized and led in such a way as to do immensely difficult things and make immeasurable sacrifices. Leaders can call forth out of their follower’s gifts, abilities, ideas, and energy that their followers may have doubted they possessed.
But there is another side to this coin.
In a separate essay entitled “Shall We All Commit Suicide?” Churchill wrote about the collective nature of the enterprise of war and how all of the factors, principles, and means of producing and organizing for the “good” also become a means for destruction.
Churchill wrote, “Science unfolded her treasures and her secrets to the desperate demands of me and placed in their hands agencies and apparatus almost decisive in their character.”
“Mankind has never been in this position before. Without having improved appreciably in virtue or enjoying wiser guidance, it has got into its hands for the first time the tools by which it can unfailingly accomplish its own extermination.”
One could say the same thing about our organizations and leaders today. We have within our ability to do so much, that we end up destroying ourselves and our organizations.
The progress of science, leadership theory, organizational management, marketing, communications, etc. are all means to a “good” end. But without wise leadership, they are also a means to create our end.
In other words, we now, as leaders, and as organizations have unprecedented capabilities. Technology, or science if you will, has given us so much regarding what we might do and how we might do it. We can communicate with more people than ever before in more ways than ever before. And because we can, we decide that must.
We know more about management and organizational theory than ever before. We can now organize people to accomplish many great things. And because we can, we decide we must. So we create things to do, and we do them–because we can. We don’t even have to stop doing others things to do these new things. We just add these new things to the work–because we can.
And on and on it goes. Because we have so many people who are now specialists in doing certain things, we have more and impetus for doing more and more things. And because we have more and more technology that allows us to do more and more things…we do them. And we do more and more of them.
But what none of these has done, what technology, leadership theory or management science has not done, is answer the question of if a thing SHOULD be done. This is a fundamental issue.
In the end, there is only so much a person can do. The collective, or what Churchill the “mass effect” may make it possible for these things to be done in spite of the individual, we must be mindful that individuals can only do so much before it becomes destructive to them. And while the thing to be done maybe a “good” thing, it is very easy for it to be in the end, a “bad” thing for an individual who is caught under the weight and energy of getting it done.
Together we can do much. Be together, we can also do too much.
“Should we?” becomes, “We shall” which then becomes, “We must!”
“We always have” is soon to follow.
Most of us are not fighting a World War. The grand goals we wish to achieve are not worth the loss of an individual consumed in the doing of the work. Wisdom asks before you start doing a thing, what thing will you stop doing?
We must be aware that the means to an end is also the means, in a sense, to our own end.
Let us always count the cost.