“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” – Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride.
With increasing frequency, I find myself “surfing” LinkedIn. There’s always a new article, a blog post that catches my eye, or a podcast that piques my interest. Along the way, I’m able to keep tabs on my professional network, as friends and colleagues change jobs, move, or transition from one career to another. So, it was no surprise when a short article on strategy from one of those colleagues caught my attention recently.
The piece – a brief discussion on the differences between strategy and planning – was especially interesting to me as a former planner and senior strategist. To this day, neither is far from my mind. I am still a dedicated student of the craft and, in fact, teach business strategy and planning in my post-Army life. Spend even a few minutes perusing my bookshelves and you’ll find a strategy library that spans from Sun Tzu and Clausewitz to Friedman and Gray. As a result, it was with great interest that I scrolled through the thoughts of one of my former peers, who hung a consulting shingle upon retirement and began offering his sage advice and seemingly hard-earned expertise.
As I read the article, however, something became quite clear: the author knew very little about planning and even less about strategy. That didn’t stop him from waxing eloquently at length about both; his writing was quite good, in fact. But the vacuousness of the content was impossible to miss, almost as if he’d been discussing the finer points of strategery. Thinking I might be showing my curmudgeonly side, I forwarded the article to two fellow strategists, both active duty colonels far better read on the subject than me. The response from one – “If I retire and do this, I hope someone puts me out of my misery” – confirmed my suspicions. I might be a curmudgeon, but my assessment was spot on target.
Empty words are proof of an empty mind
Unfortunately, this is not that uncommon today, when we all too often find people throwing around meaningful terms devoid of any intrinsic meaning. I once spent several hours watching a group of senior military leaders try to define the term “asymmetric” without once consulting a dictionary; the results of their efforts were enough to make Noah Webster roll over in his grave. For years, we’ve talked about “winning” in Afghanistan without any true definition of what winning actually means. More recently, we’ve heard elected leaders proclaim the defeat of the so-called Islamic State without any real understanding of what it means to truly defeat an enemy. Fortunately, no one dares hang a “mission accomplished” banner because we all still bear the scar tissue from that historic moment.
In the age of social media, this phenomenon has exploded, probably in no small part due to the proliferation of online publishing. With more and more people writing, podcasting, and video blogging, the opportunities for them to push beyond the limits of their knowledge has increased exponentially. Spend more than a few minutes perusing online content today and you’ll inevitably invoke the memory of Inigo Montoya from the film, The Princess Bride. At best, you’ll just cock your head to one side like a dog, wondering if what you read or heard meant what you think it did. At worst, you’ll launch into a Twitter tirade about people using precise language or only making use of terms that they can actually define.
Or, you can settle into a happy medium where you simply acknowledge the fact that people are going to communicate with words they don’t comprehend or, giving them the benefit of the doubt, understand differently than everybody else. Not everyone has an editor – mine is the best, by the way, and saves me from myself in this regard – and just as many don’t want to subject themselves to having their use of language questioned. They’ll go on producing content, drawing on a personal taxonomy that simultaneously annoys and befuddles or, worse yet, goes unnoticed by an ever-expanding audience that shares their limited grasp of etymology.
After all, words have meaning. Or, at least, they should. Even if they don’t mean what you think they mean.