Clear and precise communication is a hallmark of successful leadership. Leaders who have good command of both the spoken and written word possess a distinct advantage over those who lack this capability. General of the Army Douglas MacArthur was such a leader. Although MacArthur’s legacy is controversial and his generalship has been described as everything from ingenious to irresponsible, he nonetheless was a master communicator. Who can forget his words “I came through and I shall return,” declared upon escaping successfully from the Philippines. They were matched by his words, “People of the Philippines, I have returned,” on October 20, 1944 as he strode across the beaches of the island of Leyte in fulfillment of his pledge.
MacArthur was more than simply an expert in the writing and delivery of sound bites. He also had an eye and ear for the nuanced meaning of words and how they affected the intent of sentences in ever so subtle ways. An example of this comes from his memoirs, Reminiscences. MacArthur wrote the book by hand on yellow paper that can be viewed today in the MacArthur Archives in Norfolk, Virginia. Among the many striking things about this manuscript is the near-total lack of corrections. However, the few corrections he did make reveal much about his character and skill.
One such emendation can be found in the section about the 1950 Inchon invasion. While describing the pre-battle deliberations, MacArthur originally wrote that General Omar Bradley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “was of the opinion that such amphibious operations were obsolete” (as quoted in Rhetoric In Martial Deliberations and Decision Making by Ronald H. Carpenter, 2004, p.199). In the margin, however, MacArthur inserted an extra word. The sentence would now read that Bradley “was of the considered (italics added) opinion…”
MacArthur wanted his decision to invade Inchon to be viewed as daring and as radical as possible. If Bradley’s opposition was merely an opinion it would not reflect a strong enough opposition and thus would not underscore how courageous and innovative MacArthur was. But when Bradley’s opposition became his considered opinion, MacArthur’s monumental decision would get the glory it deserved.
Our purpose here is not to exonerate MacArthur, simply to demonstrate the importance of good communication and the effect that even a single word can have on the message being communicated.
In this week’s parsha, amid the tragedy of the spies, we see that Kalev not only understood the importance of nuanced communication but was a master practitioner at it. Following the spies’ negative and pessimistic report regarding Eretz Yisrael, Kalev attempted to stem the tide of defeatism. Realizing that a direct frontal assault against the other spies was bound to fail, Kalev, by choosing his words carefully, managed to convince all present to listen to what he had to day. The Torah relates (13:30) how Kalev dramatically got everyone’s attention through using the word “vayachas – and he silenced them.”
What was it that Kalev said to achieve this difficult goal? Rashi explains that Kalev referred to Moshe as ben Amram. Rav Yaakov of Lisa suggests explains Rashi as saying that when people speak about friends they refer to them by their personal names. But when they speak about people they dislike they refer to them by their father’s (or nowadays family) name. Thus, by bellowing out “ben Amram,” Kalev led people to believe that he would be attacking Moshe and adding to the litany of offenses that were already upsetting Bnei Yisrael. Only once Kalev had their attention did he begin to list all of Moshe’s good deeds on behalf on Bnei Yisrael in order to rebuild their confidence. Regrettably, it seemed to only work for a short time since the people were swayed soon after by the other spies’ response to Kalev. However, perhaps Kalev’s words were not without their benefit. Perhaps, his inspiring words motivated the younger generation to strengthen their faith in G-d and it was this faith that propelled them nearly forty years later to conquer the land of Israel.
What we see, though, is that Kalev understood the power of even slight changes in word usage. All leaders need to understand this lesson and continuously develop their own communication skills. The more leaders consider what to say, the more their followers will listen.