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Cacophony Requires Clarity

I recently visited Lisbon with my wife and a few close friends. It was a wonderful trip; I enjoyed the history, culture, art and architecture, and of course, the food and wine. Those who know me know that no trip would be complete without some time spent on culture and the lessons we can draw from history – especially as it relates to leadership and success. Here, I saw a great example of a powerful lesson: cacophony requires clarity.

Upon visiting the Praça do Marquês de Pombal (Square of the Marquis of Pombal), which is a traffic junction located at the head of Lisbon’s main boulevard, I was struck by the size and importance accorded to the man whose sculpture sits atop a tall monument.

Cacophony Requires Clarity

A statue of the Marques de Pombal, in Lisbon.

Here’s what I learned about that man, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, who later become known as the Marquês de Pombal.

On November 1, 1755, candles were lit all around the city while thousands attended All Saints Day mass when an earthquake hit suddenly and violently. The King was in a residence outside the city, so he and his family were not affected, nor was he there to take charge. That left the Marquês as one of the highest-ranking officials present at the time. In this period of the Portuguese monarchy, a Marquês was a noble ranking above a count and below a duke, and in this case, the Marquês de Pombal was also the appointed Secretary of State (today’s equivalent of a prime minister) by King Joseph I of Portugal. Portugal was one of the wealthiest countries at the time due to its colonization of Brazil and prolific trade.

Once the earthquake came, chaos ensued. Fires started all around the city thanks to the countless candles; houses were aflame and left in rubble, and the streets were unrecognizable. Imagine not being able to find your street, because there are no streets. Because the land was so chaotic and unstable, people naturally fled to the water in an attempt to escape to safety by boat. Unfortunately, a tsunami that had been building following the earthquake swallowed virtually everyone who tried to flee on a boat.

Imagine the Chaos

Now just for a moment, try to imagine the scene: everything you use to define yourself (your home, your family, your neighborhood, your city) is violently taken from you in an instant. In times like these, everyone naturally turns to the leader. It was in this moment that the Marquês is reported to have said,

“Bury the dead, feed the living.”

This simple direct statement addressed the immediate reality and gave people straightforward instruction. Almost as soon he said this, he began talking about plans to rebuild Lisbon.

It’s hard to get more crystal clear than that simple statement amidst the cacophony and chaos of an earthquake and tsunami. In our day, we might compare it to New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s response in the wake of the attack on the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001.

Mayor Giuliani and his entourage were walking through the streets of New York on their way to a safer location. He didn’t have much information yet, no one knew what had really happened, much less what might happen next, but he was being grilled by reporters as he walked. One particularly persistent reporter kept asking questions, to which the Mayor finally answered, “I don’t know, but I do know you need to cover your mouth and nose.”  (excerpted from chapter 5 of The Power of Losing Control)

In the book, I make the point that once you accept the situation for what it is, you can begin to find your power in it. One could make the same point here for the Marquês. In this moment of chaos, as philosophers moralized about the reason for the earthquake (an act of God?), the Marquês saw the destruction, accepted it for what it was, and found the simplest, clearest response he could in the moment. And he gave people something concrete and practical to do at a time when they were panicking, upset, and perhaps hopeless.

When Times are Uncertain – What’s a Leader to Do?

Cacophony Requires ClarityWhen life as we know it changes our reference point (who we are and how we define ourselves), it not surprisingly causes uncertainty and panic, even a crisis. Let’s just consider a few things that make our backdrop chaotic:

  • economic uncertainty (the Euro, fluctuating world markets, Brexit),
  • an immigration crisis,
  • students on college campuses saying they don’t feel safe,
  • mass gun deaths coming at an alarming rate,
  • an increasingly partisan atmosphere creeping into more and more aspects of our everyday lives

…and I’m sure we could list a lot more.

And the overarching trend all of this chaos? What it means to be a world power is changing. For example, what is the definition of a ‘state’ these days? How do you fight an enemy with three different names (ISIS, ISIL, and ‘Daesh’), who relies on terrorism?

Great Leaders Understand That Cacophony Requires Clarity

Leaders who bring clarity amidst this cacophony will find themselves with stronger influence. The simplest truths always ring the clearest – they are undeniable.  Just look at the size of the monument to the Marquês de Pombal in Lisbon. His influence clearly left a mark on the Portuguese people and the history of Portugal.


Copyright © Joe Caruso and Caruso Leadership, 2017, All rights reserved. Reprints available with permission

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