The Power of Words

Fernando Flores is pissed off. He has had enough of the bullshit. The 55-year-old philosopher, former Chilean minister of finance, former political prisoner under Augusto Pinochet’s rule, has flown halfway around the world, from California to Holland, to transform two executive teams — 32 leaders in all — of a global construction giant. These are people accustomed to building on a grand scale. But right now, building is their problem, not their business: Their world-class reputation for being brilliantly managed, it turns out, consists only of hollow words — words that have little power and less value.

Flores knows about words and how they translate directly into deeds. He knows that talk is never cheap — he often charges more than $1 million for his services, a fee that is linked directly to specific promises of increased revenues and savings. He also knows that talk is the source of these executives’ failure. Their words work against them — which is why they can’t get anything to work for them.

Talk all you want to, Flores says, but if you want to act powerfully, you need to master “speech acts”: language rituals that build trust between colleagues and customers, word practices that open your eyes to new possibilities. Speech acts are powerful because most of the actions that people engage in — in business, in marriage, in parenting — are carried out through conversation. But most people speak without intention; they simply say whatever comes to mind. Speak with intention, and your actions take on new purpose. Speak with power, and you act with power.

The team that Flores is working with is hemorrhaging money and losing market share. In charge is Anton, a Palestinian engineer, who is determined to turn things around. Last year, his division lost tens of millions of dollars — which was actually an improvement over the performance of his predecessor, who lost significantly more. Anton attributes this improvement to Flores’s intervention over the past six months. “We are still several hundred million dollars off our target goal,” Anton informs his team, “which we will have to make up by the end of the year, only four months away. There is a look of despair in some of you. In others, there is a look of, ‘I’ve seen this before. I can live with it.’ “

Anton’s language is strong, but his words are nothing compared with Flores’s. “The soft issues are the hard issues,” Flores begins. “Your problems don’t come because you don’t know how to calculate entropies or to design plates. They come because you don’t know about people. Our best comes out when we have honest discussions. Our worst comes out when we behave like robots or professionals. You all have the delusion that it’s your business to sell hardware. But every company of the future is going to be in the business of exquisite care — which means quick turnaround time and convenience. To deliver exquisite care, you need an organization that coordinates well and listens well. Right now, you are in an organization that has poor quality and slow delivery. You have one big mythology in your favor: Everyone believes that you Europeans are impeccable. But I know you are jerks.”

The temperature in the room is rising. The air-conditioning is on arctic blast, but the men are beginning to sweat. “When you get into a situation like this, nothing seems to work,” Flores says. “That’s when you don’t need solutions — you need transformation. You’ve already tried everything to stop your losses.”

One executive says to Flores, “You’re our last hope.”

“Hope is the raw material of losers,” Flores shoots back.

The session has only started and already Flores has had enough. He lifts his 6-foot, 220-pound frame from his chair. Imagine a bear rising up on its hind legs: The men are simply not prepared for how big Flores is when he stands — or how fierce. He turns on Tomas, a relative newcomer to Flores’s sessions.

“Tomas,” Flores begins, “tell me: Why is change taking so long here?” Tomas responds: The group is resisting Flores’s approach. To Flores, Tomas’s answer sounds like projection. It is Tomas who is resisting change. Flores invites Tomas’s colleagues to “assess” Tomas. One executive leaps to the challenge. “Tomas, you are blind, egotistical, and inwardly focused,” he says. “I can’t challenge you without your getting defensive.”

The words leave Tomas stunned. “Tomas,” Flores says, “say, ‘Thank you for that assessment.’ ” The words are part of a script written on an easel next to Flores. Tomas tries to repeat them, but he stutters when he gets to the word “sincerity,” even though the rest of his English is nearly perfect. Flores prompts Tomas, “Follow the script, exactly as it is written”:

Assessor: [Name], [negative assessment]; [positive assessment].

Person assessed: [Name], thank you for your assessment. I appreciate your sincerity. I would like to have further conversations with you about the topic.

Assessor: Thank you.

Person assessed: You’re welcome.

“Tomas,” Flores says, “why this rebel-child attitude? Can’t you answer me?” Flores turns away in disgust. Another colleague uses the script to assess Tomas. “Tomas,” he begins, “you are a bureaucrat. You are married to rules, not to listening.” In fact, Tomas keeps his head down, scribbling notes, unable to look at his colleagues. Flores asks Tomas what he learned from this comment.

“That I have more work to do,” Tomas whispers.

Flores eyes the group warily. “I am using Tomas for one purpose,” he says, “to show you what transformation is not. To show you what it means to be weak and insincere. Tomas, stand up and tell me honestly what you think of me. This is how you develop trust. I know you have been saying things behind my back. I promise that no matter what you say to my face, I will reply with, ‘Thank you for your assessment.’ “

Tomas measures out his words as if each one were a drop of poison for Flores to swallow: “I . . . don’t . . . like . . . your . . . style.”

Flores corrects him: “You hate my style.”

“I hate your style,” Tomas says.

“Thank you very much for your assessment, Tomas. I appreciate your sincerity. Now here is my assessment of you. You are an asshole, but less of an asshole than you were two minutes ago. You have opinions on things that you know nothing about. If you give me permission, I will train you. If you agree to be trained and don’t follow my lead, I will kill you. And that’s worse than my style.”

Then something amazing happens: Tomas smiles. He . . . thanks Flores for his assessment. He looks relaxed. And he recites the script word for word, this time pronouncing “sincerity” flawlessly and without hesitation. The mood in the room lifts. Tomas has walked through the fires of truth and come out safely on the other side, and there he has found trust. His colleagues beam. He is now willing to listen to what they have to say about him and to accept the truth in their criticism. He is not hiding from them or from himself. He feels . . . free. The conversion is almost spiritual.

“You feel good now?” Flores asks.

“Yes,” says Tomas, nodding, clearly pleased.

“That’s what happens in an atmosphere of openness,” Flores says. “When trust improves, the mood improves. Everyone feels more confident. One thing we need to do here is to produce despair — because despair produces reality. A feel-good style can be a symptom of unawareness or lack of caring. I’m showing you what your blindness looks like. Drop the idea that you have a map for the future, or that you need one. I want you to build your sense of curiosity. If you act as if you know everything when you meet with your customers, you’ll lose your job.”

Tomas is not off the griddle yet. “Tomas,” Flores says, “here is my prediction: You are going to be fired from this company if you don’t transform yourself. You will be fired because all of the others in this room are committed to transformation, and they need you with them. If everybody here says you are full of shit, and you don’t acknowledge it or see how that assessment serves you, you are doomed. You should be happy and grateful for these assessments.”

Flores is making a larger point about the real source of strength in business. “In the western mind, there are two notions of compassion,” he explains. “One is, I’m going to be a good Samaritan and help this guy. But that is the compassion of the weak. The compassion of the strong is in waking people up to their blindness. For that, you need to be a warrior. I am tough and sweet. I show you your bullshit, but I’m also infinitely patient with you.” Flores stands up very straight and addresses the group. “Know this,” he announces. “We aren’t aware of the amount of self-deception and self-limitation that we collect in our personalities. I’m fighting for freedom, for breadth of being. I want to open up people’s moral imaginations — which will give them a strategic advantage in business, in politics, and in their personal lives.”

The World According to Flores

There is magic in Fernando Flores: the magic of transformation. Like any true magician who transforms things — or, in this case, people — Flores is not content to describe the act of transformation. He must perform it — which is what he has done with Tomas. To transform these executives, Flores must prompt them to engage — specifically, through language. To get them to engage, he conjures up moments of truth and of trust. He must scare them to death about what they are not doing. “Great work is done by people who are not afraid to be great,” Flores says.

The World According to Flores exists in three realms. The first is the smallest — and the most self-limiting: What You Know You Know. It is a self-contained world, in which people are unwilling to risk their identity in order to take on new challenges. A richer realm is What You Don’t Know — the realm of uncertainty, which manifests itself as anxiety or boredom. Most things in life belong to this realm: what you don’t know about your future, your health, your family. People are always trying to merge this second area into the realm of What You Know You Know — in order to avoid uncertainty, anxiety, and boredom. But it is the third realm of Flores’s taxonomy to which people should aspire: What You Don’t Know You Don’t Know. To live in this realm is to notice opportunities that have the power to reinvent your company, opportunities that we’re normally too blind to see. In this third realm, you see without bias: You’re not weighed down with information. The language of this realm is the language of truth, which requires trust.

As Flores practices it, transformation requires that you risk your current success — What You Know You Know — in order to join a more satisfying game. It allows you to enter the realm of freedom. But to get there, you have to shock your system out of its arrogance, blindness, and complacency. Since all action is based in conversation, the shock has to come through language.

This is Flores’s realm, his gift, his invention. What Peter Drucker did for organizations, Fernando Flores is doing for individuals. Before Peter Drucker, there was no science of management. Before Fernando Flores, there was no science of organizational transformation. Flores has defined the terrain, drawn the maps, created the language — and built the rocket ship to take you there.

The Journey of Transformation

Fernando Flores is . . . who? This is not a simple question. A magician of transformation, he is in a perpetual state of flux. Flores lives according to his own theories of language. When he speaks, he makes a commitment. If he says that he will phone you on Saturday at 9 a.m., you can set your watch by the ringing of the phone. He trusts people to be as truthful with him as he is with them; most rise to the occasion. His ambition is not to make more money: He’s worth $40 million. His ambition is not to conquer hearts: He cares only for the approval of his family and his clients. His ambition is to live every moment to the fullest and to help others to do the same — which is why so many people say that Flores has changed their lives.

It’s a lesson that Flores learned the hard way. In 1970, at the age of 29, he was named Chile’s minister of economics — becoming one of the youngest men in the country’s history to hold that post. Later he was named minister of finance — at a time when the country was undergoing its own transformation, from dictatorship to democracy. That transformation, however, ended abruptly in 1973, when Salvador Allende, the democratically elected president, died in a bloody coup. Flores was one of the cabinet ministers who fought Augusto Pinochet’s fascist forces to the bitter end. Flores was imprisoned, subjected to mock trials, and punished with solitary confinement. For three years, he was separated from his wife and five children. Many Chilean intellectuals were reported to have “disappeared.” Flores, for some reason, attracted the attention of Amnesty International, which helped to negotiate his release from prison in 1976. Being in prison changed his life: He emerged from jail with a new vision, a new understanding, and a new commitment to the fundamental connection between language and action.

“When I left prison, I had to figure out how to embrace my past,” Flores says. “Those three years represented a tragedy that I used to re-create myself, not something that was done to me. I never blamed Pinochet, or my torturers, or external circumstances. I feel ‘co-responsible’ for the events that took place. I never told a victim story about my imprisonment. Instead, I told a transformation story — about how prison changed my outlook, about how I saw that communication, truth, and trust are at the heart of power. I made my own assessment of my life, and I began to live it. That was freedom.”

In 1976, nearly broke, Flores came to the United States. In 1977, he began a PhD program at the University of California at Berkeley, drawing together several fields: the philosophy of language, computing, operations research, and management. He found himself drawn to the work of Martin Heidegger, a German philosopher whose dictum “Language is the house of being” defined for Flores the link between words and the self. From Heidegger, Flores learned that language conveys not only information but also commitment, and that people act by expressing assessments and promises. Computers, he concluded, would be more effective if they recorded and tracked commitments, rather than simply moving information.

In 1979, Flores completed work on his dissertation, “Communication and Management in the Office of the Future.” Even before he had finished the dissertation, the power and insight of Flores’s work — in which he introduced the notion of “action language” — had begun to make an impact. EST founder Werner Erhard heard about what Flores was working on and offered him a grant. The money seemed like a deliverance. While Flores had struggled to complete his degree, his wife, Gloria, had worked as a food preparer for Marriott. His teenage children had taken jobs at Burger King, and they contributed their wages to help keep the family going. Flores accepted Erhard’s offer. After the dissertation was done, Erhard incorporated Flores’s ideas into EST and invested in Flores’s first company, Hermenet Inc., a communications-consulting and software firm. But Flores soon became concerned about the direction in which Erhard was moving and broke with him. In 1984, Flores founded Action Technologies to develop software that can track the fulfillment of promises and commitments in day-to-day work operations. Then, in 1989, he founded Business Design Associates Inc., a 150-person, $30 million consulting firm.

But more than that, Flores is committed to living what he calls “life at its best.” He chooses his clients. He rewards himself for his hard work with shopping splurges, sometimes buying $1,000 worth of books — and then rearranging his work schedule to give himself time to read them. Last year, he bought a majority interest in a school in Santiago, Chile in order to test and teach his theories. It is a life filled with commitments — a life based on freedom.

The Way Words Work

How does this all work? What is at the heart of Flores’s system of transformation? To speak in language that promises action, you must practice assessments (to work on truth) and generate commitments (to work on trust). Here’s how Flores’s technique works.

Lesson One: How to Make Assessments. The 12 men meeting with Flores are learning the baby steps of conversation, even though most of them are in their forties and fifties. “We haven’t met for two months,” Flores says. “Let’s start with assessments.”

Abel, an engineer in his fifties with a sweet, boyish face, begins. He turns to Felix, a planner. “Felix, I believe we still have many issues to discuss. There is still a lot of information that we need to share. On the positive side, I find you open to my concerns.”

“Thank you for that assessment, Abel,” Felix replies. “We are remiss in not discussing these problems more often.”

“You’re welcome,” Abel says. Abel then proceeds to go around the room, assessing each man, always using the same script. When he gets to Ryan, the head of sales, Abel states that he is not getting a clear picture of what’s going on in sales; on the positive side, he acknowledges that Ryan is working hard.

“We’re all working hard,” says Ryan. “Especially my guys who are busting their . . .”

Flores breaks in. “Don’t change the story,” he says, pointing to the script on the easel. “You are to use my story, not yours.”

There is a method to Flores’s model: Air strong opinions in public; make honest assessments in plain view of your colleagues. Truth equals trust. But you must make these assessments regularly, because, at first, people will try to game the system. They will use assessments as a way to enhance their own power or to diminish the power of others — which is exactly what Ryan is trying to do now. Each time Ryan is assessed, he alters Flores’s script slightly. He never says, “Thank you for your assessment,” or “I appreciate your sincerity.” Instead, he explains away the criticism that he receives. His refusal to follow the script is a red flag — and a symbol of Ryan’s problem in general: Ryan’s own words reveal that he is a weak manager. Others trust him at their own peril.

Flores can take only so much of Ryan’s insolence. “If people deviate from the formula,” he spits out, “it is an opening for bullshit.” In Flores’s world, bullshit is hypocrisy — and it shows up in the language used within an organization. Hiding behind hypocrisy and half-truths will weaken you and blind you to opportunity. That is why, Flores tells the men, engineers of their caliber can develop impeccable strategy and still fail. Their language lacks commitment, and that lack, in turn, generates resignation. When these men make sales calls to clients, their speech is full of defeat. They don’t notice it anymore, but their customers detect the lies and the empty promises.

That is why the assessment script is essential. If Ryan and the others stick to the instructions, they are more likely to hear the assessments made of them. If they hear the assessments, they will become less blind. If they refuse to cut one another any slack, to accept one another’s lies, then they will fear nothing.

Become practiced in making assessments, and you come to see others clearly, well beyond their fictions and lies. You also come to see how much influence you have over your own life. “We don’t realize how much we create reality through language,” Flores says. “If we say that life is hard, it will be hard. If, on the other hand, we make commitments to our colleagues to improve our productivity, we also improve our mood, and as a result, clarity and happiness will increase. People talk about changing their thinking, but they have no idea what that is, let alone how to do it. The key is to stop producing interpretations that have no power.”

Lesson Two: How to Make Commitments. Assessments go hand in hand with one other speech act — that of commitment. Commitments are bold promises. According to Flores, the performance breakdowns in this company are attributable to failures of commitment: Executives make promises that they have no intention of fulfilling. “Your work is not impeccable,” Flores challenges. “Ikea can’t get away with selling a $30 table with missing parts or bad instructions. But you think that you can get away with missing specs and bad quality in producing multimillion-dollar projects.”

Ryan is presenting his idea for a logistics center, which he wants authorization to build and which he believes will save the division $2 million. “The opportunity is there,” he says quietly, his tone now very different from his earlier one of cowboy arrogance.

“If you believe in this plan, why don’t you close?” Flores asks. “None of your talk indicates action — just desire.” Flores has put his finger on the disconnect: Ryan has gone to enormous pains to develop a plan that doesn’t excite him. Even as he presents it, he is backing away from it. He is doing what people do in organizations every day — saying one thing, meaning another. Ryan is bullshitting his colleagues. The tragedy — and the waste — is not that his colleagues don’t realize it but rather that Ryan himself doesn’t realize it.

Felix, the planner, is already worried. Ryan’s idea isn’t too weak; it’s too bold. “We can’t make a decision like this from scratch,” he says. “I don’t think we’re ready for it yet.”

Flores lets loose. “I cannot tolerate this bullshit,” he rages. “Listen, Boy Scout, what’s your name? Felix? In this arena, I’m the master and you’re the junior. A junior sees only one little piece of reality. The truth is, Ryan no more wants to build this center than you do. You need to get a bold commitment from Ryan. Ryan, you say you want to start this logistics center, which will save your division $2 million. But that is nothing! I want to teach you how to make $20 million for your division. You need to learn to manage commitment! Ryan, what’s the value of your logistics center?”

“It will give us competitive advantage,” Ryan says.

In a flash, Flores becomes Ryan. He rounds his shoulders into his chest, recedes into himself, and says in a wimpy voice, “I think it will give us advantages.” Then he shouts, “There is no energy in that story! You need to put emotion into your message. If you can’t put your body into it, there is no truth. And without truth, you can’t sell the idea, not even to yourself.”

Flores is standing. Spit is flying from his mouth. He conveys his message with his whole body. “Ryan, you are a Dilbert leader. You never take a stand. And here you are listening to Felix, who is resignation personified. You know what mood you are in? The life-is-tough mood: ‘Don’t be too optimistic. Next year, we’ll lose a little less than this year.’ If you live in a mood, you are blind to it. The last time I made that mistake, I was in prison for three years.”

Now Flores is ready to challenge the group. He coaches them on how to develop a big story — a story of a transformed reality, with the promise of an action plan. By the end of the morning, they have hammered out a plan for cutting construction time in half, saving $10 million. They have also developed a bold proposal for entering the Y2K-consulting business, solving problems that some of their infrastructure clients may encounter.

Flores reminds them: This must be a total commitment. “I want you to say that the $10 million project that you need to invent is a promise that you are obliged to keep. Can you invent a story in which you can be competitive, world-class people? That’s an act of committed imagination. Your problem is not that you have to work harder. Value is not produced by hard work. Value is produced by a story. Value lies in creating a new possibility.”

The team leader is pleased. “This day and a half was the best time I have ever had,” he beams. “These are ideas you can stick your neck out for. More than ever, our group feels like a team.”

But Flores isn’t buying it — not yet. “Let me challenge you,” he says. “In my opinion, you are still complacent. You say you have the best people, and yet you are still losing the war. How is it possible that the best troops in the world are losing the war? That’s not an interesting story. Winning the war with the worst troops, as in The Dirty Dozen, now that’s an interesting story. One element is missing from all of your stories: You have to be willing to risk your identity for a bigger future than the present that you are living. Ten million dollars isn’t that much. I think the real number to shoot for is $30 million. And I’m a conservative guy.”

How conservative is Flores? He has put his own identity on the line with this turnaround effort: He has promised to restore this business division to profitability, and he will continue to work with this client until it is satisfied. That is an interesting story. That is a bold gesture. That is commitment.

Fernando the Magician

One of Flores’s critics calls him “dangerous.” There is, says this doubter, something unsettling about Flores. Flores reminds him of the magician in Thomas Mann’s haunting story “Mario and the Magician.” In that story, the magician has the power to transform people: He gets important men to double over and bray like donkeys; he gets stylish women to leave their seats, where they sit beside their loving husbands, and to rush onstage toward him. The magician does all of this not through magic but by knowing that his audience — powerful men and women — have a great capacity to be led.

Does Flores think he is dangerous? A philosopher who sets out to change people and companies is playing a risky game. But most of the people he works with are desperate for change, for adventure, for a bigger playing field. These are the same people who buy books about conquering Mt. Everest, who sail dangerous waters for vacation, who seek the magic that will help them break free of the tyrannies that bind their lives and make them feel small. As for Flores, he played for even higher stakes when his life and the lives of his family members hung in the balance in Pinochet’s Chile.

Flores knows that freedom is worth the effort. “That critic who thinks I’m dangerous,” Flores says, “tell him that I don’t think I am dangerous enough.”

Harriet Rubin ( [1]) is a contributing editor at Fast Company and the author of The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women. You can reach Fernando Flores via the Web ( [2]).

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