Saturday, September 23, 2006
Another long post. Sorry.
Now I have finished reading The Meaning of Everything, Simon Winchester's second book about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. It doesn't have as dramatic a title as The Professor and the Madman, but I think it's (and that's "it's") the better book. I think that the fundamental problem with The Professor and the Madman is that there wasn't a book's length worth of story, so Winchester had to incorporate miscellaneous stuffing. (And while we're on the subject of words, farce, which I had occasion to use in this blog recently, is archaically a verb that means to cram or stuff, and The Professor and the Madman was, in that sense, farced.)
The Meaning of Everything, on the other hand, suffers from exactly the opposite problem: In the interest of keeping to a single small volume, it doesn't do justice to many parts of this sprawling story. To cite just one example, we are told that Wilfrid Murray, a son of the great Editor, has said that, "if the inner history [of the OED]... ever comes to be told in full, [the merchant banker Henry Huck Gibbs] saved the Dictionary." Wow! This Gibbs dude saved the Dictionary? Wouldn't we like to know how? Maybe even why? But, alas, everything that Gibbs did is covered in superficial generality in just two paragraphs.
And, as he gets towards the end, it seems as though Winchester, seeing his page limit approaching, thins the story out more and more. For example, the imposition of the first Co-Editor, Henry Bradley, must have mightily upset the imperative primary Editor, James Murray, but that story goes untold, and the two additional Co-Editors, Charles Onion and William Craigie, appear in the book out of nowhere, almost as if they were placed by the wave of a magic wand.
But... I don't really want to talk about the book. What I really want to talk about is something that struck me forcibly as I was reading it. It's not a point that Winchester makes -- I think he might even disagree with me. It's just a thought that grew on me as I read: That there might not have ever been an OED, or it might have been diluted to the point where it had no authority or respect, had it not been for the completely happenstance intersection of a Scots schoolmaster, in the person of James Murray, and a need to fill a vacant position, that of Editor of the great Dictionary.
The Dictionary was in shambles when Murray took over as Editor. He not only pulled the pieces back together, but, as the decades passed, he showed that he had the exact qualities that were needed to keep this project moving, and moving in the direction that it needed to be moving in. If you want to see what I mean, you'll have to read the book, but in short, he had the precise education, temperament, resourcefulness, friends, and even wife to, at many various times over the years, meet and overcome all the obstacles, and answer (correctly) all the questions, that arose.
It's not that Murray was qualified to lead just any project. For example, if the success of a project depended on diplomacy, rather than standing firm for one's principles in the face of adversity, Murray would have made an awful mess of it. No, my point is that Murray was uniquely and specially qualified to lead this one project, and that some other Editor, with qualities that were exemplary but didn't fit the needs of the Dictionary so perfectly, could have led it to ruin. And the plain fact is that some other, less well suited Editor might easily have been chosen instead of Murray. It was pure chance that he was in the right place and knew the right people at the right time. In my opinion, it is pure chance that we even have the OED today.
I'm making a Big Deal out of this because I've seen the same thing again and again, both in my own experience and in the news: A few projects seem to succeed against all odds and, when they're done, deliver more than anyone expected, and what these projects have in common is a leader who had exactly the qualities that the particular project needed. On the other hand, most projects fade away or achieve no more than mediocrity, and most of the time the failure could have been avoided with better leadership. This isn't to say that the leaders of the projects that fail wouldn't have excelled if they had been in charge of a different project -- one that was a better fit for their abilities. What it is to say is, leaders are appointed for projects with no consideration of their abilities and qualities and, correspondingly, what the project's success will require. Perfect fits, as in Murray and the great Dictionary, are accidents. It's roulette: The wheel spins, and each slot is a unique project requiring unique qualities, but instead of one ball there are as many balls as slots, each a leader with unique abilities. But the balls fall into the slots by chance. Perhaps only one slot of all those on the wheel will be a home to the leader that can guide it to success.
I could cite some examples from my own workplace, but I don't write about my workplace (and this is one very good reason why). Maybe you have examples from your own. But I don't think it would hurt if The Meaning of Everything was required reading...
...in business school.