Of landings, language, and leaders

When we look at history from the present, we’re misled by the appearence of inevitability. We consider the D-Day invasion, 75 years ago today, and we think: yes, the battle will be difficult, and lives will be lost, but victory will come. The allied forces will take the beaches, scale the cliffs, and secure the beachhead. And in the next episode, of course, the good guys will drive the Nazis out of Normandy’s towns and hedgerows, march to Paris, and reclaim that gorgeous city. And then comes the long, brutal winter, the Battle of the Bulge, and ultimately the fall of Berlin and the end of the Third Reich. This will lead to the Marshall plan, the revision of Europe, the cold war and its end, and then the present. We see history as a line, with each event leading to the next and to now.

On June 5, 1944, the day before the blood-stained D-Day invasion, Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower envisioned an alternate history: failure. He hastily drafted a second announcement, to be issued if the operation failed. It’s a remarkable artifact. Here’s the draft in Eisenhower’s own exhausted hand. (Note that he misdated it as July 5; give the guy a break).

The critical, straightforward opening sentence: “Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops.” But look again at the handwritten draft, and you’ll see that this was an edit. Originally, Eisenhower wrote, “and the troops have been withdrawn.” He almost immediately recognized the weakness of that phrasing, crossed it out, revised it to, “and I have withdrawn the troops.”

What a remarkable change. Here we see grammar as ethics, language as character. The impersonal, passive voice that Eisenhower originally chose (“the troops have been withdrawn”) conveys the same basic information as his revision, sure, but that rejected version shirks his own responsibility for the failed operation. Eisenhower realized that a sentence this momentous requires the active voice, a decision to retreat demands a subject for its verb. Ike was willing–indeed, was compelled, by his own character–to make himself the subject of that terrible predicate. His revision says, essentially, “Your sons died in vain, and I am the man responsible for it.”

Early in my career I spent time at a company where executive leaders favored a troubling linguistic pattern: they’d often say “A decision was made to <blank>.” Staff would regularly hear or read announcements like “This morning, a decision was made to end that project” or “At yesterday’s executive meeting, a decision was made to freeze budgets.” In such a formulation, decisions just appear, like rainclouds. Coworkers and I even joked: oh, the magical decision machine was really humming today! I wonder what decision it will spit out next week!

Because of this linguistic pattern, my coworkers and I saw leaders unable or unwilling to recognize their own role in the choices that affected our business, our products, our careers. Even if the leaders didn’t intend this (and, surely, they were doing their best in difficult circumstances), the grammar of “a decision was made” is a grammar of smallness and fear. This is anti-language, used to obscure and evade rather than clarify and illuminate. This is what Orwell warned of in his remarkable essay “Politics and the English Language.”

For years I kept a copy of Eisenhower’s In Case of Failure note hanging in my office, to remind myself of the inextricable relationship between language and character. In our professional lives, as leaders of products, teams, and technologies, we’re often making difficult or potentially unpopular decisions. (Though Eisenhower’s decisions about history and humanity make our little choices about release dates and go-to-market plans seem incredibly petty.) When communicating these decisions we can be tempted by the politics of the moment to adopt a posture of passivity and deflection: This thing just happened. A decision was made. The troops have been withdrawn. There was no obstruction.

But our emails and our announcements are made of sentences, and sentences are a series of small, personal choices: which word should I use here?, asked and answered again and again. A concrete, personal noun and an active verb not only makes for a clearer sentence, it suggests a writer of stronger character, someone we’re willing to trust and follow. Like Ike.

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