‘Kairos’ – the opportune moment.

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The Greeks of antiquity had two words that referred to time.  The first, chronos, was the measure of the time of day.  The second word was kairos and it had a quite strategic meaning for leaders.  It refers to the opportune time to advance or drive forward with force. Or, kairos is that passing moment which must be seized upon if success is to be achieved.

E C White, in Kaironomia, attributes the concept of kairos to the sophist, Gorgios, who apparently earned enough from teaching rhetoric that he had a gold statue made of himself for public display.

The leader is always confronted by the problem of limited time.  Three variables operate together in resolving any problem – incomplete information, urgency and the shortage of time to cooly assess options, and the need to make judgments.

Nowadays the media operates on a 24/7 time cycle.  As Tony Blair lamented after his decade in office, media churn means that an issue that is raised at breakfast may already be despatched by morning tea.  It’s hard to lead when there is constant pressure to react to the ever changing media scape. This has led to the notion of the permanent campaign in which political actors are constantly campaigning for office.

Nevertheless, we make a mistake if we think ours is the first era to feel the pain of upsetting change.  In a beautiful metaphor, the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus of Ephesus, 535-475 BCE, observed that “you cannot step twice into the same river.”  Or, put another way, everything changes, nothing stands still.

I once met a proud Kiwi (are there any other sort) who was a success story in business.  He told how his father liked to give him advice.  “Son”, he said.  “How do you know when the time is right to jump in business?”  After giving the question some thought, the son replied, “I don’t know.”  “Son”, he said, “in business you have to jump all the time.”  As it is in business, so it is in communication.

Harvard Business School’s Professor John P Kotter, in his book, Leading Change, emphasises that “Getting a hundred, a thousand, or ten thousand people to understand and accept a particular vision is usually an enormously challenging undertaking.”  He observes that all successful cases of major change involve tens of thousands of communications to grapple with difficult intellectual and emotional issues.

More to come in Peter Thompson’s forthcoming book, How Leaders Communicate.