Could you be the sort of rogue who visits a dying widow, whose husband you hated, and now that she’s facing her last moments you sit by her sick bed and promise to consult a soothsayer on her behalf? You then have the entrails read and deliver the good news to the fearfully apprehensive woman. The gods promise recovery only if she obeys and adds a codicil to her will and leaves you a legacy? She does, dies and you walk away with your inheritance. Could you do this? Could you set about amassing a fortune out of tricking and swindling people and then flaunt your ill-gotten gains in the most obscene manner? Could you? Because if you can not then you can’t be Regulus.
My boyfriend and I have been having mildly heated discussions on the difference between persuasion and manipulation. He’s been learning wonderful new tools and techniques in how to persuade and influence people. And since he loves me he’s keen to share what I said was nothing but how to get your way by pretending to deliver a win-win proposition. I can do with a little more emotional intelligence. You see, I can reason with my head about where he’s going because it’s the very thing he (and I) need to progress to the top of our respective careers. But while he’s all excited and agog about new skills I’m skulking in the background, bereft in much darker thoughts. I work in the financial investment world lately notorious for lax ethics and leading many astray with wildly innovative and persuasive stratagems. In one infamous case a U.S city council was “persuaded” to take out complicated derivative contracts they didn’t understand and when the sub-prime crises came along the city went bankrupt and schools were threatened with closure and public services were cut. One story, so big deal. Next time they’ll be more careful. And far away on the golf courses and in plush mansions the investment bankers who sold the dud deal are living it up in the Hamptons or in Switzerland or in the shires of England.
Today, I went on my course about Influence. At times it seemed not much different from a revivalist meeting – excitable coach, hands waving everywhere, empathy, setting expectations and raising the bar, getting us to feel hopeless then showing a glimpse of paradise – and I could sense the excitement in the room. Then the coach said something that struck me. He was going to take us to a place we probably won’t like very much because we might view it as being manipulative. This guy has worked with many top executives and if I read him correctly, influence is the flip side of manipulation. You need to manipulate human psychology somewhat to move a human. I can see that it’s the influential people who make things happen and I do want to be one. Call it guilt or conscience but it’s a hard road to El Dorado.
When Regulus’ little son died he decided to mourn like nobody ever did. He commissioned enough statues and portraits of the boy in wax, bronze, gold and silver to keep all of Rome’s workshops busy and paid a vast audience to hear him read a memoir of his son. This forced Pliny the Younger to wonder about all the good Regulus could have done with his energy. Alas, good men are less forceful than bad ones and diffidence is the weakness of right-thinking minds. There’s an old Roman saying that “ignorance breeds confidence, reflection leads to hesitation”. It’s unfortunate that people who make a lot of noise (the proverbial empty barrels) get the most attention and influence the most. Look around you at work or in social settings. Perhaps it’s time for people with some grit and substance to stand up on the soap box and make a noise for a change. Maybe it’s time I embrace influence. And my boyfriend.