A Personal Struggle

In some ways it was a rather standard Tuesday night. I laid in bed tired but, as often is the case, was unable to quickly fall asleep. Tossing and turning, my thoughts were as rapid as they were scrambled: alternating, seemingly at random, between the mundane and the big picture.

As I’ve gotten older, through no choice of my own, more of the background noise in my head–you know what I’m talking about–has been about morality. So after a brief mental monologue about whether my recently-completed presentation went well or not, I quickly slipped into a string of debates (with myself): are there really such things as good and evil? If so, is it even possible for humans to be either given how much is predetermined for us? Or is this a myth? Do we simply use external factors to justify what we know to be our own moral shortcomings while we underestimate our ability to dodge them? If there is no true good and evil, is that something I even want to reckon with? Probably not. OK. now back to work thoughts…

On and on I went for hours, touching on topics already discussed in far better detail and with far more coherence by moral philosophers who lived in plumbing-less villages akin to a modern-day Toledo, Ohio.

Pictured: Toledo
Pictured: Toledo

Most nights the connections between these two types of monologues would be nonexistent. I work in advertising, which is as amoral (not to be confused with immoral) an industry as there is. Nothing I do has any real consequences in the big picture. I’m not a fat-cat banker fleecing the lower class with loans whose names start with four consecutive prepositions and that are tied to Guatemalan PPP in years ending in prime numbers. I’m not a public defender representing perhaps well-meaning minor criminals against a book-throwing Leviathan.

This was not a typical night, though. My conscience was nagging at me for a truly terrible action that I’d taken that day.

I suppose, in the end, I should be thankful for this episode. While I possess nothing close to moral certainty now, my terrible misdeed has at least given me relative confidence in a few important premises: yes, there is good and bad. Yes, being bad is a self-perpetuating habit. But no, this perpetuation is not a moral out-clause: committing heinous acts slowly desensitizes you to them, but even such a desensitized choice is still a choice. And I had chosen wrong.

But I didn’t realize it yet. So immersed was I in deep philosophicals that I couldn’t see–or maybe didn’t want to see–the very tangible thing I’d done. Eventually I dozed off.

WEEKS LATER, I was sitting at my desk listening to an all-staff call regarding a recent re-org. (For those not in corporate America: a re-org is basically like getting a new head coach who decides to run a 3-4 defense when you had been running a 4-3. Talented players often get cut and there’s little reason behind it save ego.) Part of this re-org involved the creation of a new ad insights team whose sole responsibility would be the following type of research:

Thought Leadership.

The phrase terrified me. Not because of its existence; like murder, starvation, disease etc. “Thought Leadership” is something that I have come to grips with being a cruel part of an imperfect world. The crude phrase was the business world’s latest and perhaps most damaging parry against the English language, and with that, logical thought. Hugo Weaving’s “V” in the movie bearing his character’s name put it well:

Because while the truncheon may be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power. Words offer the means to meaning, and, for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth.”

Yet I had made it six years in verbal and written communication-heavy roles, including one for a leading business-focused social network, without using this immoral phrase de jour. I had continuously taken pride in my ability to make my words mean something.

No, Thought Leadership’s existence didn’t shake me. What did was the realization of the monster I had become.

Opposite the screen running WebEx was a presentation I was working on for a client. On that very presentation, while articulating the value that a certain type of ad could have for the brand, I had typed in bold caps THOUGHT LEADERSHIP.

The day proceeding the sleepless Tuesday night came back to me. In a hurry to hit deadline, I was forced to hastily complete a strategy overview for a different client. That was when I crossed the Rubicon. I decided that, despite having a former English teacher for a mother and an excellent AP English teacher in high school (Mrs. Kenny: please pardon the excessive parentheticals), I could strip words of their very purpose, to offer the means to meaning. Instead of asking for an extension or handing in an incomplete strategy, I employed a meaningless phrase designed to give the illusion of sophistication.

This was a shameful act, one that I immediately compartmentalized after a brief rationalization. What does it matter, I thought. This won’t happen again. Heck, maybe the client won’t even read it.

And yet here I was, two weeks later, staring at my sins. Even worse, I was a hypocrite: I had railed against the evils of Thought Leadership but had employed it in multiple pitches. What I first thought to be a one-off shortcut was a harbinger of flagrant moral irresponsibility. A desensitized choice is still a choice.

Words matter. Employing words like Thought Leadership consecutively is, ironically, setting our collective thoughts behind. The phrase is lazy shorthand for one of twenty words or phrases already in existence that do a better job of describing their subjects (expertise, foresight, research, etc.). I knew all of this and yet still, knowingly, sinned.

I have much to figure out about my existence as a moral being; I fear that I won’t come close to discovering all the answers before my time is up. But in this case I have prevailed through my own misdeeds and come incrementally closer to whatever absolute truth exists in this realm. Thought Leadership no more.

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