Every one of us, in our everyday chores are continually seeking the opinion of others, to either obtain concurrence of our own view or to get from them an alternative view. This opinion seeking endeavour is not restricted to any single facet of life; it encompasses personal and professional life.
Depending upon the nature of the issue, we tend to find people, who would in the minimum have relevance to the matter, upon which the opinion is being sought. It is both inappropriate and foolish to ask the gardener of the house to suggest the shortest possible route to a destination in the city or even outside (exceptions are ignored, here). The best opinion can be obtained from the driver, who may likely have, both, relevance and the necessary knowledge. Once the driver has, say, suggested two alternative routes to take, for the intended destination, the “decision” to choose between the alternatives remains with you. What is critically important to note, is the fact, that the decision making right remains with the person who seeks opinions, and also, the right to take a fresh look, and develop the third alternative, remains unaltered.
Since opinion is not a command, it can be attended for application, either for full compliance or for partial acceptance. There are many occasions when advice or opinion is sought from the significant half, in the selection of the suit or the necktie… overlooking the opinion given in this context can be costly, at least, emotionally. If we scan our daily personal chores, we realise that in almost everything we do; we seek advice, opinion or counsel. This starts from the breakfast menu to the dinner menu; from the mode of commuting to choosing the time for the return journey. We are continually taking ‘decisions’ that are derived from the ‘opinion and advice of others’. In many circumstances when advice is not taken and we run into issues and problems, the signature remark we get from friends, families and colleagues is, “Why didn’t you ask me?” It follows that decisions taken in violation or even after consultations are, “yours”; non- transferable, to the giver of the opinion.
Semantically, it may be accurate, but generally speaking, opinion is, ‘this is my view’ and advice is ‘this is my view that you should consider’. The dictionary meaning of opinion is, “a view or judgement formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge”. The Oxford dictionary says, opinion is, ‘your feelings or thoughts about something or someone, rather than a fact’ and advice is defined as ‘recommendation regarding a decision or course of conduct’. The dividing lines are so thin, that in usage the distinction is usually lost.
In the government and corporate world, we tend to mix up the distinctly different meanings of the words, ‘opinion and advice’. For this piece too, my own usage is smudged, at various points of arguments. In our professional lives, we seek the opinion of colleagues, once expert advice has been obtained. Many times, in relation to legal issues or disputes, we obtain, ‘opinion or advice?’ Regrettably, all legal opinions defy the Basic English meaning of the word, “opinion”, which is ‘feelings about a matter that cannot be evidenced’. Hence to properly handle legal entanglements, we must seek and ask for “legal, advice” and not “legal opinion”; the former is given based on facts and substantiation. Leadership occasionally relies upon strong opinion that is believed to be true, but lacks evidence by facts.
Advice is a stranger; if welcome he stays for the night; if not welcome returns home the same day, is a popular African proverb. Leadership must remain alert and watchful of advice that emanates from the ill gardens of deceit, deception, ill-will, anger and haste. To such type of advice, political leadership is more prone and susceptible, than leadership at business and corporate level. This is however not to suggest that deliberate wrongful advice is not given to leadership in organisations. It exists, but is, not rampant, because of the inbuilt processes and filters, that an advisory or opinion passes through. Gullibility at the corporate level is less witnessed than in political leadership.
Populist leaders, like ZA Bhutto, under the induced intoxication of “opinion and advice” of his party members were made to walk to the gallows. He kept waiting for help that did not arrive, because it wasn’t there to begin with, but he was assured of it by his inner coterie. There is an English adage, “advice whispered in the ear is not worth a tare”. I received such advice in my career, I fell for some to my personal peril, others I rejected, with no costs to anybody. Hence, as a CEO, you must not lend your ears to hearsay and whispers. The owners of business keep their ears on perpetual lease, to gather information, even if it be of quality, that is best described as grapevine. Insecurities built in the deformed leader, propel him/her towards seeking advice from all and sundry, on any issue, strategic or otherwise. Advice peppered with a good dosage of spice and salt is a dish that owner/ managers devour upon.
This doesn’t last. The exposition of truth happens faster than expected. Corporate leaders must put for their own good an imaginary epitaph upon all advice received, that is sought or is volunteered, with, “Caveat Emptor”!
‘We are (normally) --- this bracketed word is my addition) are of different opinions at different hours, but we always, may be said to be at heart on the side of truth ‘(Emerson). Giving opinion or advice is powerful, because one is bold, without having to take any related responsibility or liability for it. The overload of opinion and advice can only confound and confuse; no leader must steer the organisation or the government, after every mariner’s directions. It is best to let opinion and advice sleep in a Frigidaire or let it simmer on coals, before rushing to act upon it, because the “responsibility” of outcome is upon the leader, not upon the one whose advice is acted upon.
Enlightened leaders seek opinion and inputs from those who are related and also from those who may not be in any manner relevant to the issue, to arrive at a conclusive point of making a decision. Leaders, while filtering through the advice, must remain conscious that they cannot ever evade the associated responsibility, of the results of the decision taken. It is theirs’ and theirs only. Harry Truman, the US President, had a plaque on his desk that read, “The Buck stops here”. He knew his responsibility. Leaders must know that they have no liberty, like any other organogram can have to play the game of ‘passing the pillow’.
Leaders who refuse good counsel cannot be helped. Asking for an opinion is no sign of weakness. The great Abraham Lincoln always in developing any stratagem always sought advice from his opponents too, while handling the civil war. Leaders must know well too, that the pillow is the ‘mother of counsel’; the best advice is found on the pillow. Unfortunately leaders who need the most, heed the least, to any opinion or advice.
Counsel dipped in the wine of self-interest will seldom prosper. Trample opinions that you as a leader suspect to be self-serving for the giver. This element usually is masked and clouded, hence to get it out of the cobweb spun around, the heat of attack and defence of the opinion, should fairly serve as a measure of guidance, so that decisions are taken, with no doubts but with confidence; the debate is likely to take away the gaps in opinion and plug in well, with renewed and fresh suggestions. No leader must base his/her decisions upon the available “Vox Populi “.
Opinions must have alternatives to look at; a one sided opinion must be evaluated with a lens of many sided opinions. Aristotle says, “Some men are just as sure of the truth of their opinion as are others of what they know”. Many managers in leadership positions, in different segments of the economy, business and society, listen to only those who share their opinion, and hence consider them as wise for the reason of being subservient to their opinion; anybody differing is usually ignored and avoided. Such types of leaders, to their own specific disadvantage, practice to appreciate the presence of those who share his/her opinion.
We witness almost each day, how government functionaries evade from taking or accepting responsibility, for their own or their subordinates actions. Leadership sans responsibility, is an imagination, to flirt with. This doesn’t last long, because the effects of decision making come to the fore. These could be positive or negative, but regardless of that, the responsibility remains with the Leader.
Leaders, without the exclusion of the corporate or business universe, take decisions in isolation, sometimes; once they have made up their mind, they seek concurrence to their views, by guiding and influencing the discussions. The team is misled to believe that the decision is being made through a consultative process -- nay, in such environments, they (team) are merely endorsing the decision made elsewhere; essentially the team is a rubber stamp. In my career, I have resorted to such strategy and technique, but never with ill-intent or against any individuals.
Expecting good counsel from fence sitters is suicidal for leadership. Those waiting to see which direction the breeze will flow, can hardly be trusted to give honest advice. Even if they were to, it would still be shrouded with “If’s, but’s” and many other caveats. If insecurity is at the base of opinion offered, it is reflected, through the gap created between real motive and declared intention. To mask this, a resort is made in expressing opinion that conveys very little, as George Orwell puts it, instinctively “instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink”.
It should be no surprise that even parliaments act as a rubber stamp to the initiatives of a strong minded leadership. Subservience to the thought of the leader in no way accords it the status of an opinion. Using this very argument, as Churchill did too, with a different animal as an example, those who fall into subservience by “silent option” or even muted acceptance, are essentially appeasers, who feed the lion, in the hope that it will eat them, the last.
“Of all the horrid, hideous notes of woe, Sadder than Owl- songs or the midnight blast, is that portentous phrase, ‘I told you so’,”. (Lord Byron). This class of advisors and opinion givers are late comers to the decision making processes. In tracing the parentage of all failures, one arrives at, ‘ indecisiveness ‘. Ideas obtained must be used, instead of placing them into freezing cold storages of inaction. Our country’s Five Year Economic Plans are a valid case in point. South Koreans, implement them, we cold storaged.
(The writer is a senior banker and a freelance columnist)