Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Dean Frank Wu: "My Critics -- and Yours -- are Right"

This essay is by Dean Frank H. Wu, who is Chancellor & Dean of University of California Hastings College of the Law. This essay also appears at LinkedIn.

I had lunch yesterday with a colleague, a peer; he also heads an institution of higher education. He asked me for my advice about responding to people who disagree. I don’t know that I am any wiser than anyone else in the role he and I both played, but I shared this thought: Agree with them. They probably have a point.

Anyone who leads is able to influence the lives of many others. With that power comes the price of accepting that numerous observers will have an opinion about one’s performance. Strangers freely offer one another speculation that has no basis. They may persuade themselves that they are able to infer intentions — which they are sure are not among the best.
Ever since Doris Kearns Goodwin published her group biography of Abraham Lincoln and his Cabinet, the title of which explains the theme, Team of Rivals, people have aspired to be like the melancholy, martyred President. During wartime, despite personal loss, he was always able to tell a story that would make his argument much better than any argument could have. 
When those whom he had appointed would disparage his intellect, he would respond as follows: “If [War Secretary] Stanton said I was a damn fool, then I must be one, for he is nearly always right and generally says what he means.” Lincoln would conclude calmly, “I will step over and see him.” .
He understood he had to heed especially his enemies. The Confederacy could not be ignored. It had to be considered on its own terms and ultimately confronted in the nation’s interest.
Well, nobody since has likely matched that model in any respect. It’s likely futile to try.
Instead, I try to remember the character of Dogberry from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. A self-appointed constable, the equivalent of a modern captain of the neighborhood watch, he is a fool’s fool. Nothing he says makes any sense, the observation of which only invigorates him further in his pompous malapropism. 
Notwithstanding his superlative incompetence, he and his crew in fact manage to apprehend the villains of the story. When the miscreants who cannot believe his luck and theirs’ attempt to put down his capacities, he is perfectly impervious to insult. If anything, he demonstrates the vanity of humility.
Puffing himself up with pride that must be forgiven, he tells his deputy that it ought be writ down in the record how he, Dogberry, is “an ass” and has been proclaimed such. None is to forget.
“I am a wise fellow,” he continues, “and which is more, an officer, and which is more, a householder, and, which is more, as pretty a piece of flesh as any is in Messina, and one that knows the law — go to — and a rich fellow enough — go to — and a fellow that hath had losses, and one that hath two gowns and everything handsome about him.”
Dogberry is not oblivious. His peroration shows him to be more sensible than his words suggest, more sensitive than his reaction reveals. That makes him the better of those who would insist he remember his place. He is more memorable than the bland young couple about to be wed, whom he saves however inadvertently.
There are fantastic portrayals by Michael Keaton, unshaven and enunciating well while seeming unable to control his spittle, in the sumptuous Kenneth Branagh movie adaptation, as well as Nathan Fillion, as earnest as he is deliberate, in the elegant Joss Whedon version. Each in his own manner is perfect. They are admirable for their actions whatever others might say.
I have moral failings of which my critics are not aware. So I urge myself to remember I am made all the better by listening to their attacks with care.


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