We live in an age where ‘innocence is bliss’ no more and the call for being discreet but decisive guides every step of the way. Discretion is a positive trait as it is meant to safeguard one’s interest without hurting someone else’s. It can be usefully exercised only by a person who was well informed, who had the ability to see things in a larger perspective, who could judge the relative importance of a thing or happening in a context, who understood the significance of a lawful silence and who tilted in favour of a humane course.
Let us examine these five traits. First, we are in the age of information whose mandate is that one had to be a well-informed person to make progress in any field. Being well informed means having the right information in time, having the information that made a difference between a ‘decision’ and a ‘guess’ and having a complete-looking information of relevance since ‘knowledge comes in integral packages’. A teacher of children, for instance, has to have knowledge of child psychology and parental stress, besides the content of curriculum, to do well. He or she will then be able to discreetly handle a child — discretion here will be a vital part of the judgemental call made by the teacher. Again, a person, more so a woman, who was aware of the law and order situation in an area would be able to exercise discretion about the mode and timing of movement. Discretion is the better part of valour in this setting.
Secondly, it is not uncommon to see people not being able to ‘rise above the details’ and look at a situation objectively ‘from above’ to appreciate what the given facts were leading to. Life is so much about whatever is happening in the immediate and the proximal that thoughts on its repercussions for the future were pushed back. Living life easy takes precedence over living it meaningfully and that puts discretion on a discount because the latter required nursing relationships with some sensitivity as a presage to discreet conduct. Further, working for material advancement has to be a major endeavour of human beings but tempering it with a spiritual understanding of life yielded an inner satisfaction that could only be felt not expressed in words so much — the classical Hindu thought describing an honest effort to raise wealth as a ‘dharma’ of man says it all. Discretion gets built into the conduct and responses of a person of material success when the ‘big picture’ orientation of thought stays with him. The Bible’s ‘Man shall not live by bread alone’ as opposed to Mary Antoniette famously saying, ‘Let them eat cake if they have no bread’ suggests, more than anything else, a complete spiritual disconnect of the French queen. Discretion is wisdom and wisdom comes from the awareness of the broader perspective of life.
Third, discretion is basically an outcome of the capacity of a person to judge the contextual importance of a happening or a piece of information — and that too in an ongoing fashion because life does not stop at one event or a one-time revelation. The point is about grasping the relative significance of what was there in front of you. In my younger days in Intelligence Bureau, my senior who taught me what the profession was all about, would often counsel me ‘to distinguish essentials from non-essentials’ — he was defining the basic meaning of Intelligence assessment and perhaps unknowingly rediscovering what Vilfredo Pareto, the Nineteenth century Italian social scientist had, laid down by way of Pareto’s law. That law simply states that ‘there are a significant few amongst the insignificant many’ — the ability to pick up the former from a mass of information is what was being emphasised by that senior. This, in turn, comes from the ‘effectiveness of differentiation’ that is achieved on the strength of work experience, knowledge of the world and familiarity with human psyche and behaviour — all of this, in fact, becoming the hallmark of how discretion was built into a sound judgement. It is common to find people who can’t distinguish macro from the micro, long range from the short term and at a finer level between the ‘journey’ and the ‘destination’.
Fourthly, ‘discreet silence’ has generally been regarded a virtue so long as it was not meant to give somebody an advantage over the other, was used as a legitimate course to keep you out of the trouble spot of others and was not in violation of a legal obligation. Being discreet does not mean one would not be frank — there is no compromise insofar as the expression of an honest opinion was concerned for that was an aspect of personal integrity. Maintaining confidentiality is good and it is a binding factor in many circumstances where non-disclosure is not a discretion but a compulsion. Any cognizable offence committed in the presence of a police officer, for instance, casts a legal duty on the latter to report it to the authorities. A citizen, on the other hand, may sometimes maintain a discreet silence out of an anxiety not to get caught in the harassment of a legal process — and not for the reason of not helping the law.
Here it may be mentioned that the set of fundamental duties laid down in the Indian Constitution also rest on the citizen’s patriotic sense and are not legally enforceable. Of course, one has to be an honest witness if approached by law to testify in any matter. Sometimes a person avoids intervening in a social situation out of discretion that tells him or her that silence was in the best interest of all concerned. Discreet silence here becomes a socio-cultural option and even a positive course of action if it is prompted by an innate wisdom about nature’s larger scheme of things. Discretion has to be exercised always in favour of morality and not for a lesser objective. At the workplace, delegation of discretionary power is a sign of enlightened management that trusted employees with decision-making at their level for better efficiency and quicker delivery. In government functioning there is a lot of buck-passing, both up and down the hierarchy because of lack of willingness to exercise discretion and make a decision. Decision-making entails responsibility and many in the cosiness of a government employment would like to shun it.
The final paradigm of being discreet concerns the handling of human relationships — it can be said that an option used in the interest of a humane cause will never go wrong. Even in business, and all business is human activity ultimately, discretion guides how a leader treats the colleagues and the subordinates. A successful leader has to have an idea of what an employee is as a person and an awareness of the role of emotions in shaping a response. Emotional intelligence has emerged as a key to the successful handling of the human resource and good leadership makes use of it to make that handling discreet and productive. Right use of discretion is a leadership trait and this comes in handy for the head of the family as well — because family can be considered as the smallest organisational unit requiring good management. Discretion is a positive ingredient of informed decision-making that combines the personal integrity of the individual with his or her understanding of the immediate context as well as its long-term impact and humane implications. It is ultimately an index of wisdom and hence a forerunner of success.
(The writer is a former Director Intelligence Bureau)