Conceptualize

“The foundation’s program,” says a publication on leadership development, “strives to shape new ways of conceptualizing leadership as not merely a quality of individuals but as embedded in complex ways in social systems.” This use of CONCEPTUALIZE, like most uses outside the philosophical and psychiatric journals, simply means “think about,” nothing more.

The word appears in the sentence about leadership, it seems, for only one reason: to impress the gullible reader. It adds no meaning beyond a simple reference to thought. Yet by dressing up the mere act of thinking in an elaborate, five-syllable word, the author seems to suggest that this thinking is, in itself, somehow singularly important. To some eyes, it might even suggest that people in foundations are doing a kind or quality of thinking that other people, in their mundane, plebeian thoughts about leadership, do not or cannot do. To a reader who takes such implications personally, the word would be annoying, not just because it is unnecessary but because it seems to convey a subtle put-down (which, I happen to know, the author of this passage would never intend).

But even assuming that most readers aren’t so thin-skinned as to sniff out a subtext like that, or to take offense at it, we still might reasonably ask: Why doll up such an ordinary idea in so much embroidery? Wouldn’t it make much more sense to save your cleverest, most original wordplay for the thing you’re thinking about, rather than for the mere act of thinking? (Admittedly, in the case of the sentence we cited, what the author is actually thinking about has something to do with qualities complexly embedded in social systems. That would appear to be a destination even more forbidding than the long and winding conceptualization that leads to it.)

Why make your reader pause for reflection over some hypothetical thought process, rather than over the object of that process? The answer is that, too often, that kind of navel-gazing really is what interests people who write about philanthropy and public affairs. The process by which they arrive at an idea (no doubt a rich and provocative process, at least some of the time) fascinates them no end. The photo-processing company mentioned earlier was no doubt similarly enthralled by its ingeniously engineered on-site capabilities. Trouble is, these things are usually a bit less fascinating to other people, and can serve to distract them from the real point one is hoping to make — or even lose their attention entirely.

It’s not that the process is necessarily unimportant. Let’s take it as given that the way foundation people think about leadership really leads them to better, more imaginative activity. It may even be worthwhile — once the reader’s interest is piqued by some hint of what that activity actually is — to explain that a particular way of thinking led to its discovery or refinement. But until people become genuinely engrossed in an idea and where it leads, they aren’t likely to give two yuans for how it was conceptualized.

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