Recently I was part of a vigorous conversation about how to gain media attention for a conservation issue important to Canadians. The issue is complex, with multifaceted intergovernmental elements, and many of the government decision makers involved are skittish about media attention at the present time. To complicate matters, after nearly a decade long campaign to raise awareness of the issue, and with almost no noticeable progress during that lengthy interval, a recent announcement resulted in significant progress towards the conservation goals of the campaign.
The announcement wasn’t a gold medal performance, to use the language of the current media preoccupation, but if followed up by another strong performance – read, another positive announcement – it might warrant a trip to the podium by the key decision makers.
That announcement might be forthcoming in short order, and the debate I was involved in was whether or not to issue a preemptive media release to ensure our conservation priorities are at the forefront when the story is reported. It seems that the media, when reporting on the recent announcement, didn’t report that we had only got about 1/3 of what we had wanted; they simplified the story, as they are apt to do, called it a win, and moved on.
Those in favor of the preemptive strike argued that in doing so we would demonstrate our prowess with the media, something that has come to define this particular campaign. The logic is that by not missing an opportunity to put pressure on decision makers, we would show them that they must address our demands. It’s fairly sound logic, and almost always carries the day.
Those opposed stated that given the intergovernmental nature of this particular campaign, pressure might cause one or more of the players to retreat from a positive position, and set our campaign back.
I added my two cents worth to the conversation, and then let the cadre of other voices have their say.
What I didn’t say was this: sometimes silence is a better demonstration of strength. Knowing when to say nothing, at least publically, can demonstrate to decision makers that you know how the game is played, and that you are playing it as well or better than your opponents are.
I haven’t written about the Tao of leadership and activism much recently, but intend to on this new BLOG. In Carry Tiger to Mountain there is a chapter called Retreat to Ride Tiger: Acting without Action.
In the Tao te Ching Lao Tzu says, in verse 3, “Sometimes the best action to take is to take no action / to embrace the unexpected as it occurs.”
“As activists, we are people of action. An activist acts. Some us fear that if we are not busy doing something for our cause, we are backsliding,” I note in Carry Tiger.
As activists, it feels awkward to do nothing in response to an opportunity. Doing nothing, after all, is the antithesis of being an activist! But taking no action is not the same as doing nothing; no action – or wu wei as Taoists call it – is a conscious choice.
It remains to be seen what the outcome will be for this particular situation. The decision to work behind the curtain to influence the media’s response to the forthcoming story may not yield the intended result. If that is the case, we may have to make some noise again to refocus the debate. That too is part of the Tao of strategy, the watercourse way: allowing the right action to arise of its own accord. To remain watchful and intuitive and know when to step back and when to push like hell is a skill that comes with experience.
Having strength does not mean always have to display it. In fact, having strength sometimes means stepping back, remaining silent and watchful, and allowing those you hope to influence perceive your power through that silence.