My summer’s reading; Ambiguity, Values and Leadership

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My reflections on Leadership this summer have been largely driven by the literature I have been reading. I’ve felt inspired to reconsider Leadership by the Existentialist ideas of Camus and Kundera - surely Leadership starts with creation, the creation of the self as a leader. I feel that in order to bestow the revered title of ‘leader’ upon someone they must have reflected upon their fundamental values, their deepest motivations, their personal philosophy. These are reflections without which we should not consider someone a leader at all - they are passive actors, inert.

Milan Kundera, the famous Czech (or French) writer’s novels are explorations of the expansive plains of human possibility. In his essay: The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes he states “The novel’s spirit is the spirit of complexity. Every novel says to the reader: Things are not as simple as you think. That is the novel’s eternal truth, but it grows steadily harder to hear amid the din of easy, quick answers that come faster than the question and block it off.” This complexity, in his view, impels the novelist to exhibit the world with all its ambiguity and intricacies. Complexity which is irreducible. If something is not ambiguous ie. is not honest about complexity by intent or ignorance, then it is not art. His insight into the ubiquity of ambiguity is filled with lessons for a generation which it could be argued is forgetting their fallibility. Not that this is all that new. We can see that with the commercialisation of entertainment, simplification of stories has become the norm. Take Westerns or Star Wars or the more recent Marvel movies where good and evil are clearly delineated and morally ambiguous decisions are routinely tidied up with slick plot twists. Ambiguity is shown to be simply temporary - small confusions which can quickly be overcome with a bit more information. Why, how much of this is due to the earnest scientism infecting our general culture - exemplified by a modern obsession with autobiographies of ‘successful’ people? Now with the prevalence of the internet and so called ‘echo chambers’ the simplification of issues is facilitating a wave of populism. A political rhetoric about good and evil, achievable ‘greatness’, nefarious elites. And as for leadership? Does it aid a leader to be unaware of their own shortcomings? Or to not realise that their motivations were not chosen or questioned by them but simply ingested from a vacuous entertainment matrix? I will argue that to consider one’s own values and to appreciate their many consequences is essential not just to being a good leader but semantically to being a leader at all. And I will argue that to do that one must pick up the scalding kettle of ambiguity and blister in the hazy steam of knowledge.

Ambiguity is, for the general human experience, always present. It is built into the very nature of existence. This can be seen in moral ambiguity and the “is-ought” dichotomy, as well as in the imperfections of each human’s inner mechanical being and it can be seen in our natural language. I feel there is a general sense that ambiguities are something a great leader can resolve. But ambiguity is part of the human condition! Hence the opposite is true. Good leadership means accepting irreducible complexity. To support this conclusion, I will show that these moral, physical and linguistic ambiguities are permanent and unyielding.

The case of morals:

In his polemical 2002 book Straw Dogs, Philosopher John Gray argued against a simplistic view of morality with an example: “A sixteen-year-old prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp was raped by a guard. Knowing that any prisoner who appeared without a cap on morning parade was immediately shot, the guard stole his victim’s cap. The victim once shot, the rape could not be uncovered. The prisoner knew that his only chance of life was to find a cap. So he stole the cap of another camp inmate, asleep in bed, and lived to tell the tale. The other prisoner was shot.” Gray argues that here the logic of morality breaks down, there is no right or wrong in what the prisoner did, and that our liberal view of morality is simply a convenience to be “relied upon only in normal times.” You may disagree with Gray’s analysis here but it is irrefutable that this situation is full of ambiguity. Is the prisoner a murderer? Was he to lose his life rather than his comrade because of bad luck? Obviously people who have been treated unjustly have no excuse to mistreat others in turn, but is there a line? 

The “is-ought” distinction is the difference between describing things that are: “the grass is green”, “13 is a prime number” and how things ought to be:  “it is right to bury the dead” or “we should have a meritocratic society.” While the “is” statement is a question of epistemology, the ought statement must be decided on by individuals and is a matter of chosen values. The ambiguity arises from the nature of values. Whereas a descriptive statement should be true for all observing a phenomenon, it would not be uncommon for a group of people to have manifold answers to how such and such should be - they all hold different values after all. In this way there is no comprehensive single picture of any human situation, all clarity is lost. Milan Kundera takes a great interest in this fact*. In “The Festival of Insignificance” he includes an imaginary speech from Stalin in which he proclaims that he was a great world ordering force who brought harmony to the USSR by enforcing a single will, a single conscience, a clear view of what ought to be. Kundera’s point is to praise ambiguity as the source of all that is interesting in humanity, and warn about the horrors of a world where leaders, convinced by the necessity for order, have fought against it.

Ambiguity of perception:

Goethe’s 1810 work, “Theory of Colours,” has been noted for its apparent attack on scientific objectivity. This is of course a misunderstanding. The book, as it is now popularly understood, explored the physics of optics from an experiential rather than objective perspective. The resulting disagreement Goethe came to with the contemporary Newtonian view of optics is indicative of the ambiguity of the human senses. In particular the human eye is imperfect and will see colours differently from their physical makeup. A good example of this is the eye’s blindspot - a part of the field of vision not registered but simply filled in by what the brain expects to be seen. If each human has imperfect perception then there is ambiguity in their perception of contemporaneously occurring phenomena experienced jointly (this is of course not to mention the ambiguity of memories offering phenomena). 

Words are slippery things:

Wittgenstein’s revolutionary book Philosophical Investigations looks at the philosophy of language and strips it of its mystical abstraction. To him, natural language is not a rigorous system for describing the world, but something humans simply do in their everyday existence - an imperfect method for a person to coexist with others. Since language is the product of the life people lead and, as I have argued, the life people lead is marred by ambiguity then it would be natural for language to be ambiguous too. Take an example from Philosophical Investigations - the word ‘reading.’ It is fair to say that we know when someone is reading, we have experienced it in life. But can one narrow down exactly what it is to read? Is reading something we can tell someone is doing by testing them? They could have learned a Russian phrase and simply be pretending to read a Cyrillic paragraph to us. They could only understand half what is written but guess the rest correctly by context. So do we therefore say someone is reading something if they believe they are doing so? They could be making mistakes in their scanning a paragraph, or perhaps, under the influence of a drug that gives them the impression they are reading while looking at a newspaper but in reality they have not understood anything. This argument is better expounded in the book and far too lengthy to cover here. The conclusion is that ‘reading’ is not a definitive concept but a word we use for a ‘family of cases’, which exist as part of our lived experience and ‘in different circumstances we apply different criteria for a person’s reading.’ Linguistic ambiguity is always present, it doesn’t just disappear when the correct grammar is deployed - that can only reduce it to some extent because of the wide recognition of certain indicators of meaning. 

Another theme of Kundera’s work which is similar, but subtly distinct from ambiguity, is his rejection of the absolute. We find in ‘Life is Elsewhere’ a recurring line “The future will be pure or it will be tarnished.” This memorable aphorism encapsulates the attitude of the communist movement (taking over the country towards any resistance, dissent or ideologically impure individuals). How can communism succeed with university academics who are not communists themselves? Does a poet who writes in a esoteric fashion wholly believe in the liberation of the working class? Or an example from ‘The Joke’: Does a true communist make jokes about people’s optimism regarding communism and can it ever be achieved by people who have such a negative approach to it? These questions all forget the presence of ambiguity and are obsessed by logical absolutes.  The genius of Kundera when he elucidates the problems of socialist Czechoslovakia is that he identifies the fundamental, human mistakes people make. The fault does not simply lie with some ideological spectre, or power hungry individuals manipulating and murdering for their own gain, but a very real and perhaps cultural obsession with order, with the absolute. When the absolute is valued and things are thus simplified to fit within one’s imagination, consideration of personal fallibility is forgotten. A world that is irreducible is forced, squashed into the box of someone’s perception and is broken in the metaphorically violent process. Similarly the question: Is your love true if you will leave me alone when I wish to be with you? asked to someone who has no genuine choice in the matter, is an example of a character breaking the world with their dedication to the absolute.

This idea, that a person cannot comprehend the whole world, simply a part which is limited in scope and clarity, can be said to derive from Nietzsche’s ‘perspectivism.’ Humility, the realisation of one’s narrow outlook, the acceptance that your view is unique and is not relevant to all other people. These revelations require an appreciation of ambiguity and they’re essential for another of Nietzsche’s great philosophical convictions - the importance of the evaluation and creation of values. To quote from the section ‘Of Great Events’ in ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’: “The world revolves, not around the inventors of new noises, but around the inventors of new values; it revolves inaudibly.” Values and the work we do for them is where the meaning in our lives comes from. “Only through evaluation [of our values] is there value: and without evaluation the nut of existence would be hollow.” Nietzsche’s point is that we must choose/create our values to work towards and be fulfilled. But implicit in this is that, since we all hold values, if we do not choose our own then they have been chosen for us - we would then be followers.  

The appreciation of ambiguity and complexity has a lot of easily enumerated benefits. Arguably it leads to a more compassionate soul, an improved ability to self reflect, a more open mind, more intellectual dexterity, a greater understanding of  your motivations and the goals you hold and work towards. Perhaps this improves the quality of one’s work. I feel my reading has done this for me. However, I have found that, to me, thinking about ambiguity and evaluating personal values is a more fundamental practice. A person who lives without deliberating such things is not really a leader at all. To lead in the first place you must choose or create your values - the alternative is to follow and, axiomatically, you could not be a leader. To be a ‘leader’ a person should know their personal values and the ambiguity they are overwhelmed by. And to know such things potential leaders should embrace the vast collection of works that the priests of ambiguity have dedicated their lives to - art, and in particular the art of the novel. 


* Much of Kundera’s writing is on this topic and it is best exemplified in his novel, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” Kundera says, “Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.The brotherhood of man on earth will be possible on a basis of kitsch.” His use of the word kitsch is significant. Things are kitsch when they are tacky, overdone, thoughtless. If ‘all mankind’ love and value the same things then they can live together without friction - but then the things they love are kitsch, not worth being valued at all. So we must conclude that ambiguity and social friction must always be present for the world to contain any beauty. The above quote is a beautifully bitter example of this.

Matthew Cunningham

Student, University of St. Andrews

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