Thursday, October 12, 2023

Tea Leaves for Action

"Brilliant," according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is a word of fairly wide application, especially during the past half century. Maybe you've noticed how Britons frequently and variously use the word. They'll approvingly comment on the brilliance of actions, feelings, experiences, intelligence, people, and sometimes even the weather.

Shining a positive light on qualities and actions, or celebrating talent, cleverness, and distinctiveness in this way can be engaging. The word suggests optimism, providing uplift and encouragement or, at the very least, stressing an upside. Due to the exploits of the nation's fighter pilots in World War II, Churchill referred to "this brilliant youth." Occasionally, we use the word laced with sarcasm perhaps to refer to people who are "showy" and pretentious. Or colloquially and more weakly, people might refer to what they consider amazing or "fantastic."

The absence of true brilliance can be devastating, whether in people or a nation's intelligence system. In the United States, for example, media pundits will periodically pose whether a "failure of imagination" among responsible leaders allows the success of terrorists. This past week, some pundits again proffered this notion to explain the barbaric, tragic killings in Israel. We heard similar in relation to the January 6, 2021 attack at the Capitol.

Very much before that event were multiple signs of its likelihood. Leadership requires both "reading the tea leaves" and taking action for the public good. Instead then, it was the ongoing undermining of institutions that dominated public debates. Yet institutions do not themselves protect a democracy. 

It is brilliance in the actions of people that might. And the actions needed will often require taking steps well beyond any established zones of comfort within institutions, professions, or job descriptions. Promptly holding bad actors to account is what matters.

Whether in personal or institutional intelligence, both the significance of what's distilled and that this is acted upon is essential. The phrase "failure of imagination" is a euphemism for the failure to take needed and effective action.


Sir Winston Churchill (1940), "Their Finest Hour," House of Commons, London, later broadcast on 18 June