Masterly Inaction

Along with its kissing cousin ‘benign neglect’, ‘masterly inaction’ was one of the useful survival tricks I learnt in the Civil Service. At least some of the impossible things you are asked to do get forgotten. Likewise, some of the huge problems you foresee are happily overtaken by ‘Events dear boy’.

But I always felt it was weak, passive and a sin of omission to indulge in masterly inaction. Having read my Primo Levi, and more recently visited and bourne witness to Auschwitz-Birkenau myself, the imagined sound of Alsatians barking and people standing by as great evil is perpetrated, haunt me. My omissions – especially when they potentially left people to get hurt – felt completely different in scale, but not completely different in kind.

‘Cynic’ was the school of Hellenic philosophy many senior Civil Service folk seemed to subscribe to. A sour worldliness, combined with acerbic wit, which allowed clever people to stand by and allow things they knew were wrong to pass them by. But perhaps more charitably they might have been ‘Skeptics’.

I’ve been reading this week about the Pyrrhonian Skeptics for whom the answer is not to jape or snipe, but simply to say ‘I know too little’ and ‘I do not know enough to judge’. Perhaps my judgements of those around me were too quick and too harsh.

Further back in my career, working in France, I had a piece of 360 degree feedback which sticks with me: “John could take a little more time making his decisions, which would save him time in justifying them”. That hurt. But it probably wasn’t wrong. I conflated leadership with decisiveness – two different things.

I read a while ago, that studies suggest, we should follow our gut, not our head, on things we have a lot of experience of. The corollary is we should have a good think, and get some facts and other views, before deciding on what we don’t know much about. The paradox is smart experienced people tend to do the opposite – think themselves out of their well-grounded judgements and over-confidently shoot from the hip when they know too little.

I’m not there yet, but perhaps I’m coming round to the view that ‘masterly inaction’ is not always a sin of omission. Sometimes as true sceptics would say, ‘I know too little’ and ‘I cannot judge’. So I conclude that to act may not always be the best course of action. However, appropriate ‘masterly inaction’ should not be framed by cynicism or cowardice, but by a healthy scepticism about one’s own capacity to make things better – and not inadvertently worse.

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One Response to Masterly Inaction

  1. A friend in contemplation says:

    There’s true wisdom in those words. Particularly if you substitute “masterly inaction” with a less cynical (your definition) term such as: pause for reflection/assimilation/understanding; a considered response; or avoidance of impetuous arrogance. It’s not about scepticism/sceptikism for me, but rather about self awareness and recognition of the need for understanding of the environment and context. Which is not to say that you shouldn’t act – as in your extreme and affecting example of Auschwitz and the bark of the dogs – but that even, and maybe particularly, in that situation, the considered response has more chance of having some impact. It isn’t about inaction, but rather the right action at the right time – which isn’t always in the instant.

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