Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Leadership: An Address to Students of Disaster Risk Reduction

Good morning, students (students, that is, under paragraph (a), sub-section 4, section 11, Schedule 3 of the Immigration Act of 2014, as related to sub-section 2, section 4, Schedule 1 of the Local Government Finance Act of 1992). You will be pleased to know that the definition of your role as students is whatever the Secretary of State wants it to be (as confirmed by Paragraph 2, Section 1 of the Local Government Finance Act of 1992), but (according to sub-section 1, section 5, Schedule 1 of the Local Government Finance Act of 1992, as confirmed by sub-section (c), paragraph 5, Schedule 2 of the Immigration Act of 2014), your university is required by law to certify, in your regard, whatever that might be. This applies whether you were born in Patagonia to parents from Outer Mongolia or Downing Street to a lineage that has been in England since Norman times. In any case, because you are a student, the Secretary of State may require you to certify any information of any kind that she wants, regardless of what it is (for confirmation of this, please see section 2, paragraph 1, Schedule 1 of the Local Government Finance Act of 1992). So be of good cheer, for this fundamental freedom under democracy is your precious gift to enjoy!

My take on leadership is very much that of W.S. Gilbert’s renowned Duke of Plaza Toro: “In enterprise of martial kind / When there was any fighting, / He led his regiment from behind / (He found it less exciting). / But when away his regiment ran / His place was at the fore-O / That celebrated, cultivated, underrated nobleman, the Duke of Plaza Toro.”

So you want to be a leader? Well, the first thing you should learn about that is how to write. Despite all the advances in technology, despite the fact that the Finnish Government has declared that it will stop teaching children to write, writing is what you will have to learn. How long does it take to learn to write? About 100 years, plus or minus a decade or two. This means, first, that there is a long apprenticeship and secondly that one never stops learning to write, one never arrives at the end of the journey. Ah, what beautiful, well-delimited clauses, and they show that I know we say ‘first’, ‘secondly‘, ‘thirdly’, in English, although I have never bothered to memorise Fowler’s explanation of why that is the case. Fowler, by the way, is one of your guides, so I advise you to find him quickly.

My apprenticeship was much influenced by someone else’s. All writers have their mentors. One of mine was French, and her autobiography, Mes apprentissages, also published as Paradis terrestre, is so lucid that its prose sparkles in translation almost as much as in the original. Elegantly it tells of Colette’s travails dans le vie.

I was taught to master the triple cadence, with diligence, insight and perseverance, by E.M. Forster, whose pen was a sharp sword indeed. A decisive lesson came from J.B. Priestley. He is out of fashion now, perhaps because his writing tends to vary irritatingly from the pompous to the ponderous. Yet he had one great gift: he know it was so. Reflecting on his career, he wrote an essay called, with characteristic Northern bluntness, Making writing simple. In this, he managed to decry his own attempts to exude the airs of a learned and authoritative sage. Hemingway is another worthy influence. William Faulkner once said of him, "He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary." Hemingway retorted, "Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?"

If only scientists wrote in the deep, sonorous prose of Conrad, the lexicological equivalent of highly polished mahogany, as solid as it is beautiful. And English was, not his first, but his fifth language!

As an academic, I have not been villified since, when was it?, ah yes, last Friday. One of my reviews came back from the author plastered with angry red exclamations. In fact, I had overstepped the mark and forgotten a very useful principle. Writing must be honest and it must have a basic humility. Now perhaps you can see why I say that it takes 100 years to learn, or perhaps, errare humanum est, as Cicero wrote, I am the fool who will never learn: nisi insipientis perseverare in errore.

(Quidquid latine dictum sit, altum viditur.)

We write to communicate: repeat it a thousand times. How do you communicate? How is your effort, one hopes, your honest effort, to communicate received by your readership?

Good writing is the fruit of wide reading, particularly in the liberal arts. Even people who have no knowledge of the proper rules of English (in other words, most Anglophone people) will have a vague perception that something is written well--if it is. It not only communicates, it convinces.

If you want to lead, another thing you will need to do is see. Pierre Bonnard once said that many people look and few of them actually see. Bonnard is one of my favourite painters, and in the depth and subtlety of his colours and brushstrokes it is quite clear that he could see. Painting has been likened to silent poetry. His pictures of Marthe de Maligny, his secret wife, are truly poetic. But this did not mean that his vision was an idée fixe. Instead, in later life he occasionally crept into art galleries and was observed repainting his own earlier works when he thought no one was looking.

But nowadays, people not only do not see, they have given up bothering to look. The result is appalling visual poverty. People will agree that a certain thing, person or view is ‘beautiful’, but they will not know why, or how, because they will have little basis for comparison. The language of visual communication is now foreign to the majority of people. The first casualty of that is aesthetics. Belief and knowledge are replaced by empty convention. How many of you have got onto a bus and gone up to the top deck for the shear pleasure of riding around London looking at what can be seen above eye level? There is an amazing wealth of detail, much of which is hidden or indistinguishable from ground level. To bury one’s nose in a ‘hand-held device’ is to miss so many of the things that make life worthwhile. Text messages, photographs and videos are no substitute for the real thing. The art  of looking in order to see not only gives an astounding visual education, it prepares one to interpret. Like writing, it is an essential skill for leaders.

Here is a story about leadership that I would like to share with you. It is not a success story, and it comes from a time when I was less than half the age I am now. In the early 1980s I published repeatedly in the journal Environmental Management. I settled on it in 1980 because it struck me as the best produced, most presentable journal on the new publications rack at UCL library. I struck up a working relationship with the founding editor, Dr Robert DeSanto, a practising environmental engineer. In 1985 he invited me to take over the editorship. I was 32 and an Assistant Professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Quaking in my shoes, I consulted Dr Fred Byron, my dean. He said it was OK, so I took one of my Department’s capacious Dodge Ram vans and drove down Interstate 91 to East Lyme, Connecticut. After lunch with Dr DeSanto (somewhat archly, he took me to a restaurant in a historic building that the British had tried to burn down at the time of the American Revolution), I loaded the journal, lock, stock and barrel, into the van and drove it back to UMass. Remember, nothing was done electronically in those days: there was no Internet.

So here I was, a young Editor-in-Chief of a major international research journal published, with Germanic efficiency, by Springer-Verlag of 175 Fifth Avenue, New York City and produced in Teaneck, New Jersey. In my 17 years as editor, I spent much time in the historic Flatiron Building, New York, home of the publishers, and I had the pleasure of meeting Conrad Springer, the titular Head of the firm. But my first assignment was the worst. Indeed it was the worst I have ever faced in 32 years as an editor. Among the papers I collected from Dr DeSanto was a set of proofs of an article that he had accepted for publication but Springer had pulled from the production line. It was a paper about environmental mismanagement in the Soviet Union, written by a former inmate of a Siberian labour camp. It was a work of great brilliance and insight. However, the publisher objected to certain phrases. I particularly recall one example: “These dams were built with the blood and bones of 200,000 political prisoners.”

The author of the article had escaped from the Soviet Union and found a toe-hold in the American academic system at the University of Connecticut. From his base at UConn he fulminated against Springer, the journal - and me - and he accused us of censorship. This was particularly inflammatory, as, first, in my view he had a point, and secondly, the Cold War was still underway and these things mattered. I tried to mediate and calm the situation. I failed. He published the paper elsewhere - a totally unethical move. He sent us an offprint with a message scrawled on it: “that’s what I think of your censorship!” To cap it all, he then had a stroke and died, no doubt as a result of the physical stress of political prisonership in a cold climate. It was not my finest moment. As with so many failures of leadership, there were no winners: we were all losers.

Yes, I have been an editor for so long that when I started, the Dead Sea was only sick. But let us go back further in time.

Let me connect the concept of leadership to what we do as students of disasters. On the 10th January 49 BC, at the head of the 13th Legion Gemina, Gaius Julius Cæsar, better known as  Julius Caesar, crossed the Rubicon. The Rubicon, or Rubicone, is an 80-km long river that flows into the Adriatic Sea just south of Cesenatico, near Ravenna. His crossing of the Rubicon is history. I have crossed the Rubicon many times (either by train or driving along on the A14 motorway). This is not history. If you can truly answer the question “Why?”, you have the key to why we don’t seem to be making progress in reducing disasters.

I will give you a clue. Julius Caesar was liable to being prosecuted for waging wars in Gaul that the Roman Senate had not approved. A decision had to be made: either he remained in Gaul and defended himself there, or he marched on Rome, coming out of Cisalpine Gaul at its boundary with Italy, namely, the Rubicon River. He chose the latter and won the last and greatest civil war of the Roman Republic. It did him no good, as five years later he was assassinated by 60 conspirators on the steps of the Senate. This led to renewed civil war and the ascendancy of Octavian as the first Emperor, thus ending the Republic.

To interpret this, momentous developments in human social evolution arose from a simple, pragmatic decision to take a relatively banal action. Circumstances conspired, and all that. Underneath the action lies a vast set of interconnected relationships, actions, reactions, facts and ideologies. So it is with disasters.