Writing on the Wall

I am an inveterate collector of quotes, now on my second thick journal full of passages I’ve gleaned from books, newspapers, magazine articles, and conversations. The quote journals are fun to reread occasionally, as the phrases and sentences I’ve selected over the years reflect what was going on in my life at the time.

A few of my favorite excerpts have made it to my office wall, some calligraphied and framed, others as posters with sayings embossed over images. Perhaps my favorite came from Ed Broadbent, former leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party. He spoke at dinner for a leadership development program, Action Canada, for which I was a mentor for about five years.

One of his sentences jumped out at me, and made it to my wall: “Real leaders want to do something, not be somebody.” I discovered later that the original quote came from a 19th century French philosopher whose name now escapes me. It resonated for me because I was mentoring emerging Canadian leaders and also had just taken on a leadership role at my university, directing the Centre for Dialogue.

I’ve thought about this quote often over the years, as the leaders I respect the most are focused on what good they can achieve in the world more than what rewards or honors might be bestowed. It’s in the how we do things that determine the somebody we become; setting out to be exalted as a life objective is one of the worst ways to build a life.

My Semester in Dialogue students provided a second favorite quote on my wall, as a framed gift at the end of one of our Semesters in Dialogue. They invented a new verb: Winstonize: to cut out half the words and get straight to the point.

They had received edited pages marked with dense red suggestions for three months, mostly brutally cutting phrases, sentences and whole paragraphs from what they thought was stellar prose. I took it as an honor to have a word named after me, although perhaps they were just making fun of my penchant for brevity.

I do indeed love writing, and increasingly have been teaching workshops called “Communicating with Impact,” with brevity, clarity and focus as organizing concepts. Much of the workshop content was developed at the Banff Centre about ten years ago, where I was a founding faculty member in the Science Communication program.

That experience improved my own clarity around what good communication means, partly reflected in what became an end-of-program tradition, a poster with pithy phrases that summarized the participants’ experiences. The 2008 poster that I have on my wall includes: Tell a story, It’s all about audience, Make it personal, Keep it ruthlessly simple, and Listen.

I’ve always been intrigued by what people choose to post; a careful tour of an office wall reveals volumes about the inhabitant. In my case, it’s pretty obvious what I value as a professor: encouraging students to find the unique thing in the world that’s most important for them to do, and providing the tools, especially communication skills, to facilitate achieving their ambitions.

 Knowing your point, and getting right to it, is the essence of a life well lived.