Here was my first reaction upon reaching the end of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984:
Ya, it’s not a happy ending. Orwell forces us to accept Big Brother’s vision for the future:
“If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.”
Yikes. But stay tuned. There is hope, I think.
1984 is a book about power, life, government, freedom of speech (and lack thereof), human nature, strength, and weakness. It’s gripping, suspenseful, horrific, and at times, maddening. But before you move to the mountains, get a “don’t tread on me” tattoo, and buy a prepper bunker stocked with 30 years of food and ammunition, let’s think through the lessons in the book and see if there are positive take-aways for business leaders.
1984 Plot Summary in a Few Paragraphs
1984 (written in 1949) takes place in the near future in Oceania, a post-WW2 superpower consisting primarily of Great Britain and the Americas. In the 1950s, Ingsoc, or the English Socialist Party, seized control of Oceania in a revolution. Ingsoc took control under the guise of being The Party of the people that would create equality for all. The Party instead quickly established a totalitarian government that by the year 1984 wages continuous war, monitors every citizen 24/7 (Big Brother is always watching), and controls the media, speech, and history itself.
The novel follows the experiences of Winston Smith, an unremarkable clerk at the Ministry of Truth who spends his days rewriting newspaper articles and history books to fit The Party narrative, language (Newspeak), and thought philosophy (Double-think, that is, the ability to hold 2 contradictory ideas in your head and accept both as true). This is a tedious job because no one has enough to eat, people live in constant fear, and love, science, art, literature, etc. are all illegal forms of “crime-speak”. Winston is a cog in the machine of The Party that makes its slogan come to life:
“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”
Eventually Winston kind of snaps, meets a girl, Julia, whom he falls in love with, and an intellectual idol, O’Brien, who supposedly recruits Winston to join a secret revolutionary society hell-bent on destroying The Party called The Brotherhood. It turns out that O’Brien not really in The Brotherhood (we’ll never know if The Brotherhood really exists), but he is actually an Ingsoc innner party member who runs the Ministry of Love. O’Brien had been tricking Winston into following the path of treason for years.
Winston and Julia are subsequently arrested by the Thought Police, and tortured for many many dark and terrifying pages until they both betray each other and themselves completely. They are tortured to the point that they abandon who they are at their very core, and then The Party fills them back up with unconditional love of Big Brother. The book ends, kind of, with Winston feeling apathetic towards the love of his life, sitting alone in a government pub, and drinking Victory Gin in complete admiration of Big Brother, longingly awaiting the glorious moment when he is finally shot in the back of his head by The Party. Ooof.
But then there is the appendix. Disguised as a boring, academic feeling essay written by Orwell (or perhaps some omniscient narrator) sometime after the events of 1984-5 and sometime before The Party fully achieves its vision, which is scheduled to take place in 2050. A close reading of the appendix sews the seed of doubt and provides hope that Big Brother cannot possibly triumph forever. In this appendix, Orwell is describing the nature of the official Party language – Newspeak. The goal of Newspeak is to shrink the Oldspeak vocabulary (Oldspeak is the English you and I know) every year, restricting speech so that free thought, and any form of political descent, becomes impossible (if you don’t have the language for words like freedom, how can you think about being free?). This passage indicates that The Party is having a hard time killing off Oldspeak:
“Various writers, such as Shakespeare, Milton, Swift, Byron, Dickens, and some others were therefore in process of translation: when the task had been completed, their original writings, with all else that survived of the literature of the past, would be destroyed. These translations were a slow and difficult business, and it was not expected that they would be finished before the first or second decade of the twenty-first century. “
Free speech is the antidote to totalitarianism. I think Orwell tortured us for that entire book as a warning. If you don’t want to end up with your face under the boot of Big Brother, than speak the truth now, before its too late.
In the final pages of the appendix, Orwell quotes Jefferson’s famous passage from The Declaration, which Orwell says would be impossible to translate to Newspeak in any other way than to summarize it in the single Newspeak word “CRIMETHINK”:
“WE HOLD THESE TRUTHS TO BE SELF-EVIDENT, THAT ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL, THAT THEY ARE ENDOWED BY THEIR CREATOR WITH CERTAIN INALIENABLE RIGHTS, THAT AMONG THESE ARE LIFE, LIBERTY, AND THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS. THAT TO SECURE THESE RIGHTS, GOVERNMENTS ARE INSTITUTED AMONG MEN, DERIVING THEIR POWERS FROM THE CONSENT OF THE GOVERNED. THAT WHENEVER ANY FORM OF GOVERNMENT BECOMES DESTRUCTIVE OF THOSE ENDS, IT IS THE RIGHT OF THE PEOPLE TO ALTER OR ABOLISH IT, AND TO INSTITUTE NEW GOVERNMENT . . .”
Therein lies a clue to preventing omnipotent tyranny. I think Orwell is telling us at the very end of the novel that it would be impossible for Big Brother to permanently eradicate the spirit of man, as evidenced by their inability to permanently kill The Word, The Truth, and the collective achievements of people who were once free from tyranny (us).
1984 for Business Managers
With all that talk about freedom and with poor old Winston Smith out of the way, let’s talk about how we can use 1984 to crush the will of our people and create a tyranny where we become Big Brother, forever – with ABSOLUTE POWER. O’Brien explains The Party’s position on power:
“We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past, in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were- cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?”
Not so fast. If our businesses were run like Oceania, where the people are miserable, starving, and lack anything resembling creativity, we would be out of business in no time. Moreover, this sort of power just sounds evil, that is, it is objectively evil (more on objectivity later). So no, absolute power is not in our future.
I spent some time wondering how can I could use a book about the wrong kind of power to be a good manager. Then I remembered that I’ve learned so much from bad managers over the years just by doing the opposite of what they did. So maybe we could do the exact opposite of everything that Big Brother does. Maybe that would mean we could have a flourishing business with happy and creative people. Let’s take a look at the four main departments of Ingsoc, and think about using their exact their exact opposite as an action plan for successful business leadership.
The Ministry of Truth: Communication
In the book, “Minitrue” exists to spread lies and propaganda. The pillars of Minitrue are Newspeak and Double-think. Some examples of double-think include, “War is Peace”, “Freedom is Slavery”, and “Ignorance is Strength.” The Party hammers these ideas into the people’s minds until everyone believes they are absolutely true.
The antidote to double-speak (lies) is The Truth, like the real truth. I’ve always believed that communication is the cornerstone of great leadership. Managers need a communication plan that disseminates the truth, the leader’s intent, and the team’s vision. Communication has to be frequent, accurate, and precise.
Who decides what’s true? Good question. For starters, we have to lead with integrity, and that means always moving north using our moral compass.
The Ministry of Peace: Mission
The Ministry of Peace or Minipax, is primary concerned with waging continuous war against the other world superpowers, Eastasia and Eurasia. The chief purpose of Minipax is perpetual war with the goal of using up all of the nation’s surplus resources and labor, thus keeping the people in a constant state of hardship, fear, and privation. This makes the people utterly dependent on Big Brother.
The opposite of this to me means having a clear mission and only fighting the battles that will help the team win the war. Minipax and perpetual war have no mission, other than to terrify the people. There is no other goal and no picture of what victory would look like. Having a clear mission is about focus. Our teams have finite resources, principle of those being time, so focusing their efforts in a mission-driven and values-driven way creates a return on their investment. And the team needs to share in that return. So if Minipax is burning resources to create hardship, we should be sharing resources like tangible (bonus/performance-based incentive programs, promotions), and intangible rewards (recognition, awards, work/life balance).
The Ministry of Plenty: Empowerment
I think you get the pattern by now, each ministry in the book does its exact opposite. Miniplenty controls Oceania’s planned economy, and everyone is pretty much starving. People have no access to the economy’s means of production, and they are directed mostly to create instruments of war, like more weapons or more propaganda. The government doesn’t produce enough food or clothing and they constantly reduce rations. There is plenty of booze (Victory Gin, yum!) and a rigged lottery system though, to keep the poor people drunk, stupid, and full of false hope.
The opposite of Miniplenty to me would be decentralized decision making or empowerment. Once leaders communicate their intent and the mission, individuals should be empowered to make their own decisions about how to achieve the goal. Great leaders always leave room for innovation and creativity. Most managers intuitively know they should not micromanage, yet so many new managers struggle with delegation and trusting their people. The creativity of the team is so much more powerful than the forced direction of a tyrant.
The Ministry of Love: Trust
Miniluv tortures, brainwashes, and breaks the spirit of the people of Oceania, especially renegade Party members like Winston. Their main enforcement arm, The Thought Police, are clandestine enforcers and informants embedded throughout society, which means no one, including your own children, can be trusted. Winston’s neighbor is caught by The Thought Police after his daughter supposedly overhears him saying “Down with Big Brother” in his sleep! At the climax of the novel, Winston is taken into the basement of Miniluv into the infamous Room 101, where torture victims are forced to face their worst fear. For Winston, a man terrified of rats, he is present with a special locking cage that contains two hungry rats and a space for Winston’s head. Lovely.
The opposite of Miniluv to me would be creating a high trust environment. Trust is the foundation for all relationships, and effective professional relationships are no exception to this rule. And where there is trust, people feel safe, not in the “safe space” kind of way, but in the “safe to experiment or challenge the status quo” kind of way. That’s the kind of environment that leads to high engagement, innovation, and great performance. There’s a lot to creating trust in the workplace, but I like creating shared experiences for teams, and here’s primer on how to do just that.
Demma’s Conclusion: The Opposite of Tyranny is Servant Leadership
One core philosophical argument in 1984 is the question of objective truth. O’Brien and Big Brother believe there is no such thing as objective truth. They believe that 2 + 2 can equal 5, so long as everyone believes it to be true. They believe that the past can be changed, as long as all records are changed and everyone’s memory is reprogrammed. At one point, O’Brien tells Winston that he can fly, and as long as O’Brien says it and Winston believe this to be true, then it is.
This is, of course, not true! There is such a thing as objectivity in the world. There is such a thing as morality. The past cannot be changed. Even things like reason, human nature, and art have an objectivity to them, in my opinion. The Party (and today’s real life post-modernist neo-Marxists) are wrong about the nature of reality. This is why I believe it to be objectively true that the Godfather is better than Sharknado, Michelangelo is better than Jackson Pollack, and that Mozart is better than One Direction.
What does objectivity have to do with government and power? Everything. If there is objectivity in the world, then there are objective definitions of good and evil.
Tyranny is objectively evil. It is evil because it increases pain and suffering in the world. Everyone knows that pain and suffering are real, objective things that everyone experiences, so it follows that any system that increases pain and suffering is objectively evil. So let’s do the opposite. The opposite of a tyrannical power pyramid is to flip the pyramid upside down, and have the leaders serve the people, rather than the people serve the leader. The opposite of creating more pain and suffering is to alleviate pain and suffering and help people achieve their goals. That sounds like a pretty good definition of my personal favorite leadership model – servant leadership.
1984 is a classic book for a reason, and I loved it. I listened to the auidobook on Audible as narrated by Simon Prebble. This was my first time listening to fiction on Audible. Prebble’s narration was unbelievably entertaining. The audiobook is about 10 hours long, so that’s about 2 weeks of commuter car rides filled with edge-of-your-seat entertainment. Highly recommended!
Welcome to my blog. I have been a manager for fifteen years, and for the past five years I have been leading teams of 500 people or more as a director and VP for large growth companies. I share my leadership journey and thoughts here with the hopes of helping and inspiring other leaders.