The Lost Maps of Reality

 

 

This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian:'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispin's day.'
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember'd.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,

Henry V

William Shakespeare

History is more than a record of past events. It is the story of the actions and decisions of people, and as in this scene from Henry V, the shared experience of endeavor. The Spectacle of the Real, on the other hand, wants no part in the kind of history shared by King Harry and his "band of brothers" on the fields of Agincourt. Rather, they seek the public's passive attention to their opinions, in effect to nullify the living presence of the past.

In my post, The Map of Memory, I write,

"History, in its simplest form, is a story in the context of a specific time and place.  It provides perspective for understanding how we got here, and, possibly, where we are going. The map of memory helps us decide today what is true or real within the culture of the spectacle because it reveals the embodied relationship we have to the past.This is what a well-told story does for us. Places us into a context of meaning that helps us to know ourselves within the larger scope of history.

History, as a living narrative, is accessed through memory and recollection. Seeing history as the facts of chronological time, retrieved as lists of dates, events and personalities is to fail to see that the meaning of the past has meaning for today."

History carries a deeper resonance than simply my story or your story. It is even more than our story. It is the story that illuminates the present so that we can understand why life is the way it is, how we got here, and where we might go in the future.

There is a great divide, greater than the span of the Grand Canyon, greater than the length from our world to the end of the universe, greater than the distance from mind to heart. It is the divide between individual initiative and acquiescent passivity.

This difference is the one that exists between a life lived to the full, and a life that is viewed vicariously through personalities portrayed in the virtual world of the screen. This latter existence is what I see as The Spectacle.

Look, watch, observe and be a spectator; don't speak out, just listen; don't think, just comment; don't imagine, just accept; don't act on your own initiative, just do as you are told; don't remember, just be in the moment.

This is the message of The Spectacle of the Real. A life suspended in order to absorb the opinions and conjectures of others. To do this, one must detach oneself from time and the course of history. One must live only in the moment, and forget the continuity that exists in time.

But history does exist. It is all around us. It is discovered in places of honor, remembrance, restoration and reenaction. It is where families gather to remember lost love ones. It is where communities restore historic districts. It is where people gather to commemorate significant historical events.  In these settings, history can live as an act of remembrance. In others, the commemoration is The Spectacle, where the historic occasion is just the excuse to direct people's attention elsewhere. Where history lives, we can become a part of the story as it connects to a past that informs us of the realities of the world in which we live.

William Cronon writes about what American historian Frederick Jackson Turner told his students,

"... they must bring to the past their most urgent concerns of the present. "Each age", said Turner in 1891, "writes the history of the past anew with reference to the conditions upper-most in its own time. Pursuing that idea, he argued for a history that would study not just politics and elites, but the social history of ordinary people: "the focal point of modern interest," he wrote, "is the fourth estate, the great mass of the people.' A history that would do those people justice would have to study many fields-literature, politics, religion, economics, culture. It would have to focus on places and regions which past historians had ignored, places which, as luck would have it, were also home to many of Turner's students. It would have to turn to untapped documentary sources and apply new statistical techniques to their interpretation. It would have to set American history in the context of world history, and it would do so not by simple narrative but by studying problems. If these things were done, then the histories of ordinary people in places like Wisconsin or Kansas or California might come to have the significance they deserved. "History has a unity and a continuity," wrote Turner; "the present needs the past to explain it; and local history must be read as a part of world history." "

This is The Map of Memory, where the connections between generations, between past and present, between my story and our story becomes a panorama of understanding that we can share.

This living narrative is lost in The Spectacle of the Real. History is swallowed up, digested and regurgitated, as the authorized perspective replaces historical context. We, then, suspend our skepticism, that is at the heart of learning, in favor of a passive acceptance of expert opinion.

Without critical awareness, understanding the causes and meaning of moments in time becomes unnecessary. The goal of those who profit from The Spectacle is a passive, attentive following, who believe what they are told and accept what they see as true.

The Spectacle, therefore, is the active nullification of individual initiative and thought.

History Must Be Destroyed

French critic Guy Debord, writing in the context of Europe between the 1960s and 1980s, makes this point about the Spectacle's effect.

"With the destruction of history, contemporary events themselves retreat into a remote and fabulous realm of unverifiable stories, uncheckable statistics, unlikely explanations and untenable reasoning. ... One aspect of the disappearance of all objective historical knowledge can be seen in the way that individual reputations have become malleable and alterable at will by those who control all information: information which is gathered and also – an entirely different matter – information which is broadcast.  Their ability to falsify is thus unlimited. Historical evidence which the spectacle does not need to know ceases to be evidence. ... Never before has censorship been so perfect. Never before have those who are still lead to believe, in a few countries, that they remain free citizens, been less entitled to make their opinions heard, wherever it is a matter of choices affecting their real lives. Never before has it been possible to lie to them so brazenly. The spectator is simply supposed to know nothing, and deserve nothing. Those who are always watching to see what happens next will never act: such must be the spectator’s condition."

The Spectacle is a form of domesticated thought control. It is the efficient management of public opinion through self-censorship and collective shame. 

All we need to know about what to think, who to trust, what to buy, who to vote for and what not to say is gained by listening to the expert pundits who fill the internet and television programming with their opinions and prejudices. To doubt is to court humiliation and shunning. To be a person free of having to think for him or her self, and take responsibility for making a better world is to listen, follow and do nothing. It is a kind of noble passivity where one feels apart of some great following, while contributing very little.

Bloggers know that embedded in the comment section of their weblogs lies a public seeking intellectual communion with others. The comments may be rude and disrespectful in many cases. And many are parrots and trolls who simply comment to suppress alternative comments. Yet, seeing one's ideas in print along side dozens or hundreds of other commenters creates the sense that individual contribution and mass support is possible, and can make a difference.

That difference can be made only if our perspective is broader than whatever is on the screen of our computer or television. To think independently, we must learn to read the Map of our Memories within the context of history. We need to realize that the context that we are often fed online is non-existent.

In order to think, to understand, to make our own choices, and act upon them, we must reconnect with our history.  We must look beyond the moment and recognize that what is happening now is a product of what happened in the past. It is all connected, and by making the connections, we gain wisdom for our lives, our families and communities. Here's an example of what I mean.

The Context for Understanding

Torkham - Kyber Pass - Afghan-Pak border
The border village of Torkham - Kyber Pass - Afghanistan-Pakistan border - July 1981

If we knew our history and the history of other peoples, would we have ventured into a war in the mountains and on the plains of Afghanistan?

But we did go. Do you know why? Was it to fight the war on terror or secure our rights to oil? Did we go because we didn't not want to show weakness in the face of terrorist destruction? Or, did we go to project American strength and confidence in the world?

See how confused our reasoning was. All those reasons are not reasons, but attempts to justify what essentially was an unclear context of understanding. These are the reasons that are derived from The Spectacle, which is founded upon the projection of unquestioned authority. For all the bright and intelligent experts who have continued to speak about the war on terror, not a one, in my opinion, has yet to provide a clear historical context for our actions, both domestic and foreign, since 9/11.

What do you think? Are we in a better place as a nation today than in 2001?

While I do believe America is exceptional, I also believe that it requires us to be far more humble and circumspect than we have been in our response to terrorism.

To know the history of the Afghan region is to know that war is not occasional, but perpetual. It is to recognize that no one invades and conquers. Rather one leaves as a stalemate is reached. It happened to the Soviets. It is now happening to us.

Without historical perspective, we believe anything. Collect the right images together, and anyone can be fooled for a fortnight. Then the next Spectacle is upon us because there is no real historical continuity, only momentary linkages.

Without historical perspective, we believe that history is on ourside. We look at the outcome of the Second World War, and think, we can do it again. We tried in the jungles of Southeast Asia, and now on the steppes of Central Asia. What has been the outcome? What is the endgame? Can there be a perfect outcome? Can there ever be an ending? These questions are much more easily answered when we have a understanding of history's continuity over time.

At the heart of that history is remembering the failures that brought perspective. What did we learn from our past wars?

From the Civil War on through to the current war on terror, what we learned is that if we apply enough technology, enough young creative minds and bodies to the battle, then we can defeat any foe. At least that is what we tell ourselves. In other words, we learned not humility, but hubris.

As a mindset, this hubris is applied every where American power can be exercised home or abroad.

I see this because as a person born and raised in the American South. As the descendent of men who fought on the side of the Confederacy during the Civil War, I grew up in a region that understands what it means to lose a war, and the consequences of that loss. Many of those who fought in the Vietnam conflict feel in similar ways. Yet, their loss is not to the Communist forces they faced but rather from their conviction that their country failed to stand by them as they put their lives on the line for their country.

NCMemorialGettysburg
North Carolina Memorial at Gettysburg

Two members of my family served with the 55th North Carolina Vounteers, one, my great, great grandfather, Alfred Belo commanded the regiment at Gettysburg, and another, his brother Henry, died later, during the Battle of The Wilderness. The following two quotes are taken from Jeffrey Girvan's history of the regiment.

"Once in the Confederacy, North Carolina made important contributions to the South's quest for independence. Approximately one-fifth of all the provisions and supplies used by all Rebel armies came from the Old North State. An estimated 125,000 men from North Carolina eventually served in Confederate regiments and state militia units ... at least one-eighth of all soldiers who fought for the South were from the Old North State. Only 19,000 of these fighting men were draftees. Over 23,000 North Carolinians deserted during the war, more than from any other state in the Confederacy. By the end of the war approximately 40,275 North Carolina soldiers had been killed in battle or had died from disease while serving in the army. One-fourth of all Confederate soldiers killed on the battlefield were from North Carolina."

This is part of the historical context of the Civil War. Why did all these men leave their homes and venture off to fight in a war? Is it simply to preserve the institution of slavery as we are informed today during the 150th anniversary of the war? Or is there something more going on that gives reason to their service.

"The 55th North Carolina was probably one of the least homogeneous regiments from that state. The ranks of the unit were filled by men from every region in the state and represented over 20 counties. This regiment was a microcosm of the state. These counties varied in political ideology, social institutions, total population, slave count, and economic stability. The majority of the counties represented in the regiment contained less that 4,500 slaves, but the unit had a company of men from Granville which according to the 1860 Federal Census had more slaves than any other county in North Carolina. ... Most of the soldiers who fought with the 55th owned no slaves and worked as yeoman farmers or farm laborers. Although farmers constituted the majority of the regiment, there were also blacksmiths, teachers, merchants, lawyers, doctors, and mechanics. it is reasonable to assume, on the basis of the soldiers' letters and the 1860 Federal Census information, that most of the men who fought for the 55th were not strongly motivated by questions regarding slavery. However, they still felt motivated to resist when "outsiders" invaded their soil, and they were not about to let Yankees dictate how they should live their lives."

There is much more to be said about the historical context of the reasons why these men from North Carolina and the South would go to war against their own countrymen. It is the story that is missed in the coverage of the 150th. anniversary observance. It doesn't fit the narrative because it isn't simple or image based. This lost of historical reference points means a loss of perspective about what it means to be an American.

What is it that drives people to visit a battlefield like Gettysburg? Is it a shared experience of battle as soldiers? Is it family history? Is it a desire to understand this pivotal moment in our nation's history?

Today, what does the Civil War, understood both from a Northern and Southern perspective, tell us about how we should have approached the war on terror?  What about other threats to the nation?

In the end, what drove these mostly farm boys to war was an ancient notion of honor. This idea is gone, totally eradicated, from The Spectacle that is presented to us each day in Washington, on Wall Street, and through the media. If you look there, you will not see it. You must look away to those who do not seek your attention, but rather live quiet lives of service to their families, neighbors and communities.

What has not been lost by the public is an understanding of the importance of trust in relationships. People who venture to military parks like Gettysburg, whether they are aware of it or not, come because honor is, ultimately, the only answer to Why did they fight. And they seek, whether they realize it or not, the lost virtues of honor and trust that are fought for on battlefields wherever citizen soldiers fight.

Recovering the Lost Map of Reality

In my post, The Map of Memory, I present a perspective that characterizes our memory as a map. The more connections there are, the more detailed the map of memory, and the greater our understanding of the landscape of meaning.

French theorist Jean Baudlliard's Simulacra and Simulation, written a quarter century ago, is today more relevant than ever. He writes,

The great event of this period, the great trauma, is this decline of strong referentials, these death pangs of the real and of the rational that open onto an age of simulation. Whereas so many generations, and particularly the last, lived in the march of history, in the euphoric or castastrophic expectation of a revolution - today one has the impression that history has retreated, leaving behind it an indifferent nebula, traversed by currents, but emptied of references.

Walking the battlefields of Gettysburg during the 150th. anniversary of the battle, I wondered whether there were sufficient reference points for the thousands of people present to understand what had taken place. More than anything, as troop movements are described, cannons fired, and heroism celebrated, I wondered if anyone would leave with an understanding that these thousands of young men did not come to play war games, shoot their cannons recreationally, and go to battle to have stories of heroes to tell their grandchildren. They came to kill as many men on the other side of the battlefield as possible in the name of honor.

The Spectacle avoids death in these terms. Death as the purpose of fighting wars. Death to the Spectacle is something to sensationalize, as the daily murder trials that fill newspapers and televised news shows. We become immune to death when the killers become celebrity personalities. It becomes a game whose purpose is to divert us from reality.

The nation's awareness of the deaths on 9/11 are the exception. Within a few short months, though, we loss our historical perspective as Americans cheered the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. I am not a pacifist. I believe that war is often necessary and unavoidable. I respect and honor the men and women who go to war. But I do not at the same time view it as a game, a Spectacle for our amusement. I hate the deaths that result, the loss to families and communities, and the desensitization to death that results.

French cultural philosopher Guy Debord, who was the first to write this phenomenon in Society of the Spectacle and two decades later, in Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, writes,

History’s domain was the memorable, the totality of events whose consequences would be lastingly apparent. And thus, inseparably, history was knowledge that should endure and aid in understanding, at least in part, what was to come: ‘an everlasting possession’, according to Thucydides. In this way history was the measure of genuine novelty. It is in the interests of those who sell novelty at any price to eradicate the means of measuring it. When social significance is attributed to what is immediate, and to what will be immediate immediately afterwards, always replacing another, identical, immediacy, it can be seen that the uses of the media guarantee a kind of eternity of noisy insignificance.

This is how we came to lose our maps of reality. What is reality, if not a clear perspective where we can see ourselves in both a positive and critical light. We have lost this capacity for self-criticism as individuals and as a nation.

The things that provide us a basis for understanding the past are being lost in the unreality of the Spectacle.

History isn't simply facts, dates and names or a rationale for contemporary ideologies. History is a living human context of conversations about who we are as people and how we inhabit time and space on both a local and a global scale. It is also what has truly mattered in our lives when we reach our lives' end.

George Santayana is famous for having written, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

If we are to recover reality from the nullification of our minds and souls, then we must reclaim the context of history as a the map of memory, connecting past and present together as a living reality. 

All this requires is a willingness to think for ourselves and take responsibility for what we learn. That's all.

Series Note: This post is one in a series that I am calling Reclaiming the Real. You can find a page of links to each post in the series here.

Honor

Dad in Turret Tomorrow marks the 234th anniversary of our nation's declaration of independence from England. Over the years, citizens have joined the armed services to defend and serve the nation and the world. My father was one of those who served. This is a picture of him in his B-29 gun turret during World War II.

Most of the veterans with whom I've talked about their war time experiences are reticent to say much about themselves. What lingers in their minds is the memory of those fellow comrades who gave the supreme sacrifice of their lives for their country. These still living veterans will tell you that they are not heroes. The only heroes are the ones who died in battle.

The other day I came across a story written by Iraq war veteran, Staff Sgt. Fred Minnick, an Army photographer and journalist. Here's part of his story.

I went out on a lot of missions with infantry guys. I did one mission with these guys, and it was like, we clicked. We bonded, and we just became friends. I would go out with them on a lot of other missions. But there was something so special about that group. And that squad ended up losing three people.

Staff Sgt. T. was from Samoa. He had cannon arms, thick fella, and just a big old teddy bear when he would talk about his family, but, boy, did he run a tight ship with his soldiers. And M. was just this — if you could ask me what kind of personality I could have, I would want to be like M. This guy was genuine to the core. He was an outdoorsman. His wife was pregnant.

When it came through that they were killed, and even more so the way they were killed — they were sentries, they were killed outside of a nearby mosque, and they were killed by snipers. Specifically, the sniper bullet used was, like, a Chechnyan rifle. They were both hit in the neck, so that means that they were killed by a professional. I had lost friends in there already at that point. I’d lost Samir. I don’t know if it was just a culmination of all of them, this one, and the fact that I really loved these guys, but it just fucking killed me.

And this.

The one thing that pisses me off about everything — everyone always assumes that I, and other soldiers, have an opinion of war and the politics behind it, and sometimes they try and push you for it. “Should we be there?” I fucking hate that question. I get it asked all the time. It’s a very difficult question to answer. Because if I say, “No, we shouldn’t be there,” that means R., M., T., they all died for no reason, they died for a hopeless cause, about oil, or whatever. If I say, “We should be there,” then it’s a matter of justifying all the deaths that have happened on the Iraqi civilian side. There’s just so many ways you can look at it, and I don’t care about any of that. I care about the people who go and fight and whether or not they’re getting cared for when they get back. That, I think, is one of our country’s huge problems. We want to say we support soldiers and everything, but the fact is we have no say in whether a war is being waged or not. It’s not our job as a soldier to have an opinion on it. It’s not our job to be political. It’s our job to do our job. It’s not our fault that a war is ever waged.

The politics of war does a disservice to these men and women. Both sides treat these people as expendable assets, instead of human beings who are sacrificing a normal life of peace and contentment with their families to served their nation.

As you celebrate Independence Day, remember the men and women who have served, sacrificed and given their best to insure that you can stand on your patio, drink a beer, and shoot off some fireworks at dusk. Honor them with a moment of silence, a prayer, or even a speech that honors them, and doesn't use them for your own political arrogance.

Thank you Dad for serving. Thank you solider, sailor, Marine, airman and coast guard for your commitment and sacrifice. May you find peace this day of celebration.


You are in control of you - Admiral James Stockdale on surviving in stressful situations

This week's Weekly Leader column - You are in charge of you - looks at the stress that Stockdale reunion - Academy of Achievementcomes from losing one's job in the context of the story of James Stockdale, the highest ranking US POW imprisoned during the Vietnam War.

A long section from an excellent interview posted at the Academy of Achievement where Admiral Stockdale tells about how he managed the psychological stress of imprisonment, and the role that the philosophy of Epictetus had in his survival.

Admiral, how did you survive psychologically? The other men you mentioned perished under the same circumstances.

James Stockdale: I don't know. I didn't feel like I had more vitality than the next one. I had things to do. I was alone a lot, and I found ways to talk to myself and to bolster my own morale. I was getting occasional letters from my wife Sybil. And she would from me. She probably wrote 50 and I got six, and I probably wrote 20 and she got two or something like that.

After I came out of Alcatraz, we all came back to the regular prison. They tried to get me to go downtown. They tried everything. They would give me the ropes three times a week. One of my original breakthroughs was self disfiguration. I was given a lot of times in the ropes in room 18, which is the main torture chamber of Hoa Lo prison. It also serves as kind of a ceremonial chamber when no prisoners are in there. In that, the only room in the building, a great big building with plate glass windows, and they had big heavy quilts that they drew across it. I was in there and they were about at their wits end. Two officers were working me over. Pi Ga, my torture guard, was always there to take me wherever they wanted. It was about mid-afternoon and they said, "Okay, you've done okay, today. Now you want to get washed up." I knew what that meant. That meant we were going downtown that night.

Continue reading "You are in control of you - Admiral James Stockdale on surviving in stressful situations" »


We are what we do

Thor

Everyone needs a dog. Dogs cut through the verbal mumbo-jumbo that we humans  pass off as our intentions and purposes in life. All they know is action.

Our dog Thor only knows us through our actions. He loves us and is loyal to us because we scratch his head, throw him a tennis ball and steal firewood from him so that he can chase us. Thor only knows us through our actions toward him. Because Thor is simple like that, he makes it simpler for us as a family to love each other. Thank you, Thor.

Over the past few weeks, I've met a guy, who will go nameless, who, through his blog, has introduced me to a woman, whom I've now met, who will also go nameless because of her story.

She personifies a principle that I believe is important for leaders to understand. 

Her story in moment.

I meet people all the time who tell me their stories. What is compelling in their stories is not their rationale or their interpretation of it, but rather their description of the actions they have taken to get where they are.

Thirty years ago, when I was a seminary student, there was an idea floating around some churches, and is still prevalent today under different names, that all you had to do is claim God's blessing, and it was yours. It was dubbed, "Name and Claim It."

I realized that this belief system was an invitation to passivity, an entitlement mindset and the self-deception of blaming others for their own failure to act.

Believing in "Name and Claim It" is an emotional narcotic that is not fed by action, but, rather, by the constant need for new inspiration to believe in the idea.

I find it sad and incidious.

My assessment of this success faith is that it is a parasite on the richer tradition of individual freedom and entrepreneurism. It is parasitic because the belief suggests that all you must do to be successful is place an idea in your head, and it will come true.

Not so, every successful person I know has worked hard to get ahead and stay there. There is no magic to becoming a successful person. Even the luckiest, gain and keep their success through hard work and perseverance through the many transition points that are required to create a successful life.

One Woman's Action

I set up this woman's story with this perception of success because of what she did, not what she said she did. I leave her name out, simply to respect the anonymity of her actions. What she did was not done for fame or recognition, but rather to be herself, to live an authentic life, each and everyday. I honor her action by not granting her more public exposure than she wishes.

Let me identify her by the initial H to make the telling of the story easier.

H is a part of group of people who work in most communities as rescue workers. Her rescue work is on the water. She is the leader of a team of water rescuers. They train hard. They put their life on the line for people every day. They are like the police officers who run toward gun fire, the firefighters who run into burning buildings, and soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen who go into the most violent places in our world to provide safety for us at home. H is in this class of person. Even before hearing her story, I had the highest level of respect for her because I know people just like her.

To know me is to understand that I place a person's actions above their intentions. I see people spending most of our lives rationalizing either their action or non-action.

As people, we are prone to self-deception, and it is only through dealing with the hardest, darkest side ourselves that we discover the truth of who we genuinely are. To see this is to be free of fear of discovery, free from humiliation, free no longer to appear to be more than we truly are, and instead to act to do what we must to do be our authentic selves.

H's story is one of heroism. She was returning home to her family after a weekend of training. She comes across an automobile accident that has just happened. Let my other friend tell the story as he heard it.

Just got a call. A visceral scream was the first thing I heard. Someone unloading into their phone and I was the recipient. Confusion, alarm, concern, all the keywords one goes through when you know something bad has happened to the person on the phone with you, flashed my psyche as dread fell upon me.
I then realized that (H) was the gutteral scream. She was in her car, naked for the most part, burned, bruised, in shock. We established a rapport and I began to talk her down.

It is 12:15 AM. I am now wired and beyond alert. (H) had rung off as she reached her home in (C). I knew that she had just done a long day at sea ... in an appreciation day that her company, ... had just put on.
In her weary drive home she had rolled up on a flame wall on the (X highway). She said that she had driven through it and that it looked like Armageddon. Pulling up to a burning car she got out and saw movement in the flames. Grabbing a prybar she broke the window and grabbed at the squirming flame ball that was a man. She said his hands had looked like candles as they burned.
There were bystanders and she screamed for help, but as sometimes happens no one moved and as she managed to gain control of the flaming man she began to pull him out and his foot caught in the debris. Screaming at the bystanders, they finally broke from shock and jumped the two.  As they dragged the guy away, the car exploded.
“I smell (D), I smell like fire and burning flesh, I think I fractured my arm, I am almost home”
H thought that the car had punctured it’s tank in a collision with the guard rail, setting off the tempest. I am taking a sip of vodka right now. It burns and rasps my throat. I am worried about my friend.  Emotionally peaking myself, because I love her and can do nothing. But knowing H, I understand that she will be all right. Eventually. Someone lives tonight, albeit in agony, because H was where she was supposed to be. It is her lot, this sort of thing. Lucky guy.
H always lectures us that rescue (and life) is all about seconds and feet. You have seconds in which to assess and feet in which to react. Tonight once again she illustrated her point. Seconds and feet.

H acted heroically. Talk to military people and they will tell you that the only heroes are the ones who lost their lives in battle. To be a hero is to act sacrificially, even if it means giving your life for another. This is what I see in H's action. A hero acts, not out of a desire for fame and recognition, but rather out of a commitment to serve.

The leadership principle is this.

Our actions lead others, and our words follow.

They are the measure of who we are. If we say one thing, and do another, we create doubt about our authenticity. If we act wrongly, and then explain it away as if it does not matter, then we have driven a wedge between ourselves and others. When we rationalize our inaction or failure, tossing blame on someone else or institution, we rob ourselves of truth, and consequently our freedom to be authentic.

Another Women's Story

Yesterday, I was introduced to another woman, and in the spirit of the post, she'll remain nameless too. I'll call her F. I have a lot of respect for her.  In telling me her story, she told me how she has come to understand the power of forgiveness. For her it is not an idea for appreciation, but how she has learned to treat those who have hurt her deeply in her life. She lives forgiveness, just as H lives heroism. And she is free as a result to be her true, authentic self.

We are what we do.

As leaders, how we treat people, not what we say for public consumption is what matters. This is what our family saw everyday from our dog Thor.

Monday night, after two weeks of rapidly declining health, Thor, was put down.  Thor was loyal, loving and a part of our family. He didn't care about my intentions or my philosophizing. All he knew were my actions toward him. All he wanted was for me to chase him, to throw firewood to him and rub his head.

Consider today what you do. You only have seconds and feet to take the right actions. There are people around you who are watching, looking for you to act in accordance with what you believe. Ideas matter, but only as they reveal our inner motivation to act. Our actions are mirror of our intentions.

We lead by actions, and our words follow.

Make sure that they are one and the same, and you'll find peace and freedom, and the respect and love of others in return.

Good bye, Thor, my friend. Rest in peace


Leadership in times of suffering

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Last week, I had a conversation with young woman about what the Harry Potter stories mean to us. It brought me back to what was so compelling about a tale of an orphaned boy alone in an alien world of wizards.

I find Harry one of the most important literary characters of our time. In a post from September 2007, I wrote,

Professional people experience the suffering of failure and its consequences. Yet, we are not suppose to either acknowledge it or let it affect us.

Suffering in life takes on many forms. It can come at our own hands when we’ve done something regrettable or through the agency of other people. The question for us who are in the professional world is whether the suffering we experience has any value. Is there something to affirm in suffering, or is it simply an experience to avoid at all costs.

It was this question that came to me as I came to be introduced to Harry Potter.

When I wrote those words, I had only viewed the first five films in the series. I had not read the books. Through the visual imagery of film, I came to see the credibility of Harry's leadership coming through the agency of him as the heroic sufferer . After I read the series over a two month span, my assessment of Harry remained.

I'm reposting both the remainder of the original post and my follow up post on Harry because I believe that the lessons of strength through suffering embodied in the Harry Potter myth is one that we need to hear during a time of financial hardship. By following Harry, we can learn how to lead people and organizations during times as difficult as they are now.

HARRY POTTER, THE HEROIC SUFFERER (July 2007)

Harry Potter’s Real Story
I came late to the Harry Potter stories. All the reviews of the films and books had misled me to think that it is a story about heroism and courage of a young boy at a school for wizards. For ten years, I could not muster the emotional energy to become involved in a children's fantasy story. Increasing, my practical and intellectual interest is reality, the real world where people live and experience life. I’ve lived far too long diverted by spin and pseudo-reality. The world we live in, I find, is filled with fantasy, or rather it is an artificial world of escapist dreams. The diversion of fantasy can have the salutary effect of buffeting us against the suffering we may experience in real life. Yet, it is when we face reality that we discover aspects about our lives and ourselves that living in a dream world doesn’t afford. Ultimately, living in a fantasy world makes it more difficult to face the realities that beg us to pay attention.

Recently, listening to an XM radio interview with David Yates, director and David Heyman, producer of the latest Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, compelled me to enter Harry’s world. The way they described the movie helped me to see that there was more than a children’s fantasy tale in J.K. Rowling’s story. So, over the course of one week, I watched the first five HP films in order. I came away from viewing the series with a deep desire to read the stories, and will soon, and to reflect on their meaning for our time. Until then, here's what I see.

Harry Potter, the heroic sufferer
Harry Potter was born into suffering with the death of parents. That experience of suffering continues through his mistreatment by the Dursleys, the peer abuse of the Slytherin punks, and then on to the long series of attacks by Lord Voldemort.

Of the reviews that I’ve read over the years, what stands out to people is Harry’s courage in the face of danger. It is certainly there, but what makes Harry the most unique hero of our time, like Frodo Baggins of The Lord of the Rings, is the effect that suffering has upon how he lives his life.

Harry's strength in facing danger and tragedy is born in suffering. During one of the movies, Harry comments that what he is facing is no worse that the loss of his parents and the abuse of the Dursley’s. Suffering is the core of his life experience, and has made him the heroic figure that he is. As the child who lived, he lives not because of some magic ability, but because of the strength of character that comes through suffering.

This dialog with Sirius Black from the Order of the Phoenix film captures some of this perspective.

Harry Potter:This connection between me and Voldemort, what if the reason for it is that I'm becoming more like him. I just feel so angry, all the time. And what if after everything I've been through, something's gone wrong inside me. What if I'm becoming bad?
 
Sirius Black: I want you to listen to me very carefully Harry. You're not a bad person. You're a very good person, who bad things have happened to. You understand?

 
[Harry nods his head]

 
Sirius Black: Besides, the world isn't split into good people and Death Eaters. We have all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the power we choose to act on. That's who we really are.

I find this a very biblical perspective that goodness and darkness inhabit us all, and that we choose to cater to one or the other. The suffering Harry experiences is because of the darkness in the world. The suffering has a chastening effect on him. It wipes away the illusions about there being some magical resolution to all problems. He understands that he must act. And so he does.

This perspective on Harry’s character reminds me of the ancient Stoics who had a similar reality based view of life. They carried no fantastical optimism into life. They recognized that goodness rises out of suffering. C.S. Lewis, the Christian apologist and Oxford don had the idea that suffering produces a reservoir that increases our capacity for love. That is what I am seeing in Harry.

Harry reminds me of Homer’s Achilles whose heroic endeavors are for honor within the community. For Harry, it isn’t some abstract notion of community that he serves. His courage comes from a core of goodness that is released through his friendship with Ron and Hermione and through the teachers who recognize in him something special.

Harry's suffering inoculates him from a fantastical idealism.

He lacks the innocent optimism of youth that would certainly have been completely crushed by the Dursley’s. In this sense he is like the ancient Stoic who knows his duty and does it regardless of the consequences. He can never fully feel joy because the suffering of loss is with him all the time. Yet, he knows love from his friends, and their love for him inspires in him acts of sacrifice that completes the bond of their little community.

For me this is what makes Harry the most compelling character I’ve come across in a long, long time. I can’t wait to read the books because I want to see what Rowling sees in this.

I don’t think his suffering is merely a literary device.

There is a moral purpose to it, and through its power, transforms the community that surrounds him.

Hear me correctly, that shared suffering transforms a community, giving it strength to face the most challenging difficulties.

In the Order of the Phoenix film, at the point where the Hogwart’s wizards and witches leave to go to the Ministry in London, Harry tells them that he wants to go by himself. He says this to protect them from danger, death and the experience of his own suffering. Yet, they know because they have been with him so long that their lives are cast together, and they now will share in his sufferings. It is a powerful statement about friendship and community.

It isn’t simply the bond of shared values, but the bond of shared suffering that gives their fellowship real depth and life.

It is this very experience that so many professional people lack. They experience suffering through failure, loss or the cruelty of others. And for the most part they suffer alone. Several years ago, during a series of encounters with men in various professions, I asked them, “If you were to become an total failure today, who would stand by you?”  Virtually all of them could only answer, “My mother.”

Tragic that professional people who are endowed with great talent and opportunity are also alone in their personal pursuits.

It is at the point of failure that most of us experience the suffering of isolation.

We lose a child or a parent, and people come to our side to offer comfort. It may not be the precise wording, but I heard once, something like, “Success has a thousand friends, and failure none.”

It is also what so many churches, synagogues and religious institutions miss as well. Communities that avoid identification with the suffering of others, live in an unreal world of ideas abstracted from the real world.

Listen to people who speak of the power of their religious experience, it often has to do with the experience of others reaching out and sharing in their suffering just when they need it. It is this shared suffering that makes the message of redemption so powerful for so many.

In The Order of the Phoenix film, near the end of the concluding battle at the Ministry, Lord Voldemort tells Harry that he is a fool and will lose everything. Harry looks at him and tells him that he has what Voldemort lacks, and that is friends and love. And that he feels sorry for him. How many professional people in hearing this exchange will look at Harry with longing for the same type of camaraderie and togetherness?

Frodo’s suffering with Sam
A close literary example to Harry Potter’s suffering is the story of Frodo’s journey to Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings. Frodo steps forward and accepts the role of heroic sufferer as ringbearer. He is able to do so because a fellowship of men, hobbits, elves and a dwarf who join him in the journey.

Ultimately his journey to cast the ring into the fire is a lonely one, shared only with his friend Samwise Gamgee. Through out Peter Jackson’s treatment of Tolkien’s mythic story, we see Frodo change as he absorbs the suffering that comes with being the ringbearer. Frodo’s greatness comes from his determination to see his quest through to the end no matter what the consequences. Through suffering and the acceptance of his own mortality, Frodo does his duty and accomplishes what no other character in this story could do. Through the faithful long-suffering friendship of Sam, Frodo is able to bear the suffering through to the end of his quest. For Frodo, this suffering remains a mark forever on his life, a living presence that eventually leads him away from the Shire.

It is not unusual for contemporary films to feature suffering as a human experience. Often this suffering is viewed as a victimization of a person, rather than an experience that leads to strength, courage and friendship.

As we see in Harry Potter, the core of his suffering is from the loss of parents. Death in our society is treated as inconvenience. It is the most inexplicable experience. Our culture hates to acknowledge our mortality. We retreat into unreality as a way of not dealing with it. Yet as we see in Harry Potter, a story that takes place in a fantastic world of wizards and witches, reality is filled with death and suffering, and out of that experience comes personal greatness and the salvation of community.

In Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, Yoda says, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. I sense much fear in you.”  This is the conventional wisdom of our time. We run away from the emotions of fear, anger, and hate because we do not want suffering. But what Yoda does not say, and what we see in Harry, is that these feelings are real, and that most of us suffer in silence because we are afraid to let the reality of what we feel come out. Yet, when we face suffering as reality, we find the opportunity to discover virtues that bring strength. So, in Harry, we see not a person who has given in to his anger, but rather see his anger in the context of the love and fellowship of his friends. They are the counterbalance that transforms the sufferer from victim to hero.

Finding Strength in Suffering
I can’t tell you how you can find strength in the suffering you experience. That is for you to discover on your own with people who care about you. Regardless of whether your suffering is self-imposed or an affliction from some other source, recognize that your struggle to find strength will make you a person who is able to befriend others who suffer in the same way.

Ron and Hermione’s friendship with Harry was deepened by their sharing in his experience of suffering. Frodo and Sam were transformed through the suffering they shared. I don’t believe we can go looking for people to share our suffering. Rather, the key to finding strength is our recognition and empathetic response to other’s suffering first.

In other words, we must give strength in order to find the strength that we need.

The embarrassment of failure, the humiliation of a lost job, the emptiness that comes with the loss of a loved one, or the anger that accompanies being the victim of another person’s cruelty can become a source strength for greatness, if we let it. We see this in Harry. Can we see it in ourselves? I hope so.

HARRY POTTER - 21ST CENTURY LEADER (February 2008)

Since Christmas (2007), I have read the entire Harry Potter series. I just finished Deathly Hallows, and must say that it is delightful to read a series of books that ends well. i don't mean a happy ending, though it is, but rather, a well concluded ending.

I found the series a great exploration in the nature of leadership. My friend Tom Morris has written an excellent book on Harry Potter and its application to business and professional life.  Pick up If Harry Potter Ran General Electric and enjoy learning how J.K. Rowling celebrates the best of ancient wisdom in her story. I read Tom's book before I read the series, and I'm getting ready to reread it now that I'm done.  There is much richness to be mined from both authors.

Here are a few of my reflections on Harry as a 21st century leader.

1. Harry works as a team.  Ron and Hermione are his partners in leadership. Their communication is a fine example of how a group of people need to interact and care for one another. The caring is important because it is the basis of trust and honesty.  It isn't always easy. However, at the core of their friendship are values of love and belief in one another. This is how they are able to weather the ups-and-downs that all relationships confront.

2. Harry's character is more important than his skills.  The whole series is about the development of Harry's character. I won't give away any of the story. But there is a point near the end of the seventh novel where the choice he makes is emblematic of his character. It frees him to face his arch-nemesis, Lord Voldemort, without fear. It doesn't mean he isn't afraid of the danger. It means that he is prepared for whatever outcome results. He is at peace with himself and the world. The character emphasis is important to J.K. Rowling the author because throughout the series she shows Harry to be a rather indifferent student.  Yet, in the heat of battle, he is the one above all the rest who is capable leading.

One of the subthemes running through the series is the interplay between good and evil, and their connection to human community and human institutions. The triangular relationship between the Ministry of Magic, Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters, and the Hogwarts headmaster Dumbledore and his Dumbledore Army is a commentary on modern Western society. There are those who treat people, communities and institutions as subjects of their own will to power. There are those within those institutions who believe that the institutions represent an end in themselves, and all those outside the boundaries of the institutions are threats to its continued existence. And there are those for whom friendship and personal endeavor are what make a community worth investing in.

What Rowling shows in her seven part story is that evil and institutionalism fail because of a lack of love. At the heart of character is self-sacrifical love. Harry's leadership is authenticated by his willingness to die for those whom he cares about. For Voldemort and the administrators of the Ministry, manipulation and control are the heart of leadership. These inadequate, destructive human motivations are shown in the story to be weaker than the power of the love of friends.

3. Harry's leadership greatness is born in suffering.  We live in an era where all pain and suffering are viewed as bad and without value. Pleasure and self-aggrandizement rule. However, the picture we have of Harry is of a young man who turns suffering, pain and loss into the motivations to create goodness and friendship. The loss of his parents, the loss of his godfather, the loss of friends, the suffering at the hands of the Ministry and ultimately the loss of his mentor are not experiences that have broken him as a person. They have strengthened him to be the kind of leader that communities and organizations in crisis need. His hard life instills in him a drive for a depth in human friendship that is the very strength that overcomes the power of evil.

4. Harry is a learner, not a student. In every instance, Harry looks deeply into his experience to understand it. He has no impulse toward academic abstract reflection. Instead, he is the Aristotlean everyman whose greatness comes in action, not in ideas.  His courage, his insightfulness, his decisiveness in battle are all characteristics of a man of action. Harry doesn't turn to books to find his answers. He depends on Herminone to do that. Harry rather turns to contemplation in action to learn what he must do. He absorbs the learning and it becomes the basis for his ability to lead successfully.

5. Harry understands that leaders develop leaders. This over worked idea operates in the series as Harry's preparation of the Hogwarts students for battle against the forces of Voldemort. Their preparation does not disappoint as they take the lead when he is separated from them in every respect. They have taken his courage and embedded it in their own hearts. How did this happen? It happen as Harry trained and mentored them. He did not do this as their superior, but rather as their able peer and friend whose care for them extended to their preparation for battle.

The world that J.K. Rowling has created is not parallel to ours. It is perpendicular. There is really very little one-to-one correspondence between the world of wizards and our world. What connection does exist is different enough so that we can see our world in new ways. This is true of the picture of leadership that she gives us in the person of Harry Potter. I recommend reading the entire series in as short a period time as possible. You'll gain a picture of what is possible in our world if we only choose to put character instead of power and position at the heart of organizational leadership.

Harry Potter picture: Flickr 7305079946_7b789d6682_o / Some rights reserved


How to fix "Heroes"

The NYTimes has an article today about some staff changes in the NBC show Heroes.
Heroes
Heroes is a show about average people who discover they have superpowers. The first season was great because it stayed with a simple theme of these average people learning to deal with their super powers. The second season got off track with some lame story about a virus, and season three which started well has also become a bit confused by too much emphasis on good guys and bad guys, criminal conspiracies, etc.

I love the show and believe that there is a simple fix to the story line. And if you are a NBC exec, or know one, pass this little bit of advice along to them, please.

There are two reasons why Heroes is interesting.

1. The characters are average people with a single super power. They are not Superman who can do anything, but average people who can do one thing remarkable well.

2. The dilemma for each of them is what is the meaning of their super power. Their super power is limited. As a result, they need other people to make a difference.  They all have identity issues. Don't we all.

How to fix the story.  The current theme of a sinister mafioso like don who steals super powers is complicated by the characters trying to figure out whether their power is to be used for good or evil.

So to fix the story, make the line between the good guys and the bad ones clear. Bad things can happen with one simple action. Good things take time to create, to mature and consolidate into something simple.

Therefore create a new story line that is clear that where the "good guys" collaborate on how they are going to save the world.

We live in a time where people are looking for hope for the future. All of us feel inadequate to make the level of difference that we want to make, so we need other people to do it. We all have talent, some developed, some hidden.

The characters of Heroes are like us, or we are them, needing to do the same thing.  They need to build the story line around the cheerleader, Claire, becoming the leader who brings all the characters together to collaborate on saving the world.The original tag line - Save the Cheerleader - Save the World - has been lost in Claire's trying "to fine herself" and the ambiguities of her family life.

In so doing, we gain a vision of future community collaboration, you have a good vs. evil story line, and you see how talented, common, everyday people needing other people to be successful at a higher level than their talent will allow. We do need each other. And the show is the perfect platform for showing this. Done well, and I believe the audience will return.

This is the genius I see in Heroes, and the pathway to how to fix the story.  Pass this along if you know someone at NBC.


Heroes - A tale for us

The third season of Heroes has begun. It is not just "must-see TV."  It is a compelling story for our time.  It is Heroes impossible to tell you everything you need to know about Heroes. It is enough for you to know that this is a story about people like you and me who discover that they have an extraordinary power. Each one has a different power or sometimes more than one.

The power could be to hear and control peoples' thoughts.  Or the power to heal, even from the most horrible of injuries.  It could be the power talk to machines or to stop time or fly. The powers are individual and special.

Even into the third season, the whole point of the story has not been revealed. We know some people want to do good, others evil. We know some people want to get rid of their power, and others to acquire more. We know that there is a company that is at the heart of the story. We know that it has to do with genetic engineering.

The story is compelling because it shows humanity to be a collection of talented people who require other talented people to be complete. We are all individuals with individual talent and abilities.  And many of those strengths are hidden from us because we've never encountered situations where we could use them.  We live safe, secure, comfortable lives. As a result, we never truly learn what we are capable of doing.

The story is a great lesson about leadership and team work. It shows how important clarity of communication and collaboration are to achieve good things. It also show how easy it is for one bad person to wreck all sorts of destruction.

You can watch the first three episodes of Heroes at NBC.com or at HULU. I highly recommend the show.


Harry Potter, the heroic sufferer

This essay is being posted to both my organizational leadership blog – Leading Questions – and to my church leadership blog – The Presbyterian Polis.

Professional people make mistakes. Some are minor, some idiotic, others catastrophic. Some are innocent, others not, some recoverable, many terminable. All professional people experience the suffering of failure and its consequences. Yet, we are not suppose to either acknowledge it or let it affect us.

Suffering in life takes on many forms. It can come at our own hands when we’ve done something regrettable or through the agency of other people. The question for us who are in the professional world is whether the suffering we experience has any value. Is there something to affirm in suffering, or is it simply an experience to avoid at all costs.

It was this question that came to me as I came to be introduced to Harry Potter. 

Harry Potter’s Real Story
I came late to the Harry Potter stories. All the reviews of the films and books had misled me to think that it is a story about heroism and courage of a young boy at a school for wizards. For ten years, I could not muster the emotional energy to become involved in a story that is a children’s fantasy. Increasing, my practical and intellectual interest is reality, the real world where people live and experience life. I’ve lived far too long diverted by spin and pseudo-reality. The world we live in, I find, is filled with fantasy, or rather it is an artificial world of escapist dreams. The diversion of fantasy can have the salutary effect of buffeting us against the suffering we may experience in real life. Yet, it is when we face reality that we discover aspects about our lives and ourselves that living in a dream world doesn’t afford. Ultimately, living in a fantasy world makes it more difficult to face the realities that beg for us to pay attention.

Recently, an XM radio interview with David Yates, director and David Heyman, producer of the latest Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, compelled me to enter Harry’s world. The way they described the movie helped me to see that there was more than a children’s fantasy tale in J.K. Rowling’s story. So, over the course of one week, I watched the five HP films in order. I came away from viewing the series with a deep desire to read the stories, and will soon, and to reflect on their meaning for our time.

Harry Potter, the heroic sufferer
Harry Potter was born into suffering with the death of parents, and that experience of suffering continues through his mistreatment by the Dursleys, the peer abuse of the Sliveran punks, and then to the long series of attacks by Lord Voldemort. Of the reviews that I’ve read over the years, what stands out to people is Harry’s courage in the face of danger. It is certainly there, but what makes Harry the most unique hero of time, in league with Frodo Baggins of The Lord of the Rings, is the effect that suffering has upon how he lives his life. His strength in facing danger and tragedy has been born in suffering. During one of the movies, Harry comments that what he is facing is no worse that the loss of his parents and the abuse of the Dursley’s. Suffering is the core of his life experience, and has made him the heroic figure that he is. As the child who lived, he lives not because of some magic ability, but because of the strength of character that comes through suffering.

This dialog with Sirius Black from the Order of the Phoenix film captures some of this perspective.

Harry Potter: This connection between me and Voldemort, what if the reason for it is that I'm becoming more like him. I just feel so angry, all the time. And what if after everything I've been through, something's gone wrong inside me. What if I'm becoming bad?
Sirius Black: I want you to listen to me very carefully Harry. You're not a bad person. You're a very good person, who bad things have happened to. You understand?
[Harry nods his head]
Sirius Black: Besides, the world isn't split into good people and Death Eaters. We have all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the power we choose to act on. That's who we really are.

I find this a very biblical perspective that goodness and darkness inhabit us all, and that we choose to cater to one or the other. The suffering Harry experiences is because of the darkness in the world. The suffering has a chastening effect on him. It wipes away the illusions about there being some magical resolution to all problems. He understands that he must act. And so he does.

This perspective on Harry’s character reminds me of the ancient Stoics who had a similar reality based view of life. They carried no fantastical optimism into life. They recognized that goodness rises out of suffering. C.S. Lewis, the Christian apologist and Oxbridge don had the idea that suffering produces a reservoir that increases our capacity for love. That is what I am seeing in Harry.

Harry reminds me of Homer’s Achilles whose heroic endeavors are for honor within the community. For Harry, it isn’t some abstract notion of community that he serves. His courage comes from a core of goodness that is released through his friendship with Ron and Hermione and through the teachers who see in him something special. His suffering inoculates him from a fantastical idealism. He lacks the innocent optimism of youth that would certainly have been completely crushed by the Dursley’s. In this sense he is like the ancient Stoic who knows his duty and does it regardless of the consequences. He can never fully feel joy because the suffering of loss is with him all the time. Yet, he knows love from his friends, and their love for him inspires in him acts of sacrifice that completes the bond of their little community.

For me this is what makes Harry the most compelling character I’ve come across in a long, long time. I can’t wait to read the books because I want to see what Rowling sees in this. I don’t think his suffering is merely a literary device. There is a moral purpose to it, and through its power, transforms the community that surrounds him. Hear me correctly, that shared suffering transforms a community, giving it strength to face the most challenging difficulties.

In the Order of the Phoenix film, at the point where the Hogwart’s wizards and witches leave to go to the Ministry in London, Harry tells them that he wants to go by himself. He says this to protect them from danger, death and the experience of his own suffering. Yet, they know because they have been with him so long that their lives are cast together, and they now will share in his sufferings. It is a powerful statement about friendship and community. That it isn’t simply the bond of shared values, but the bond of shared suffering that gives their fellowship real depth and life.

It is this very experience that so many professional people lack. They experience suffering through failure, loss or the cruelty of others. And for the most part they suffer alone. Several years ago, during a series of encounters with men in various professions, I asked them, “If you were to become an abject failure today, who would stand by you?” Virtually all of them could only answer, “My mother.” Tragic that professional people who are endowed with great talent and opportunity are also alone in their personal pursuits. And it is at the point of failure that most experience the suffering of isolation. We lose a child or a parent, and people come to our side to offer comfort. It may not be the precise wording, but I heard once, something like, “Success has a thousand friends, and failure none.”

It is also what so many churches, synagogues and religious institutions miss as well. Communities that avoid identification with the suffering of others, live in an unreal world of ideas abstracted from the real world. Listen to people who speak of the power of their religious experience, it often has to do with the experience of others reaching out and sharing in their suffering just when they need it. It is this shared suffering that makes the message of redemption so powerful for so many.

In The Order of the Phoenix film, near the end of the concluding battle at the Ministry, Lord Voldemort tells Harry that he is a fool and will lose everything. Harry looks at him and tells him that he has what Voldemort lacks, and that is friends and love. And that he feels sorry for him. How many professional people in hearing this exchange will look at Harry with longing for the same type of camaraderie and togetherness?

Frodo’s suffering with Sam
The closest literary example to Harry Potter’s suffering is the story of Frodo’s journey to Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings. Frodo steps forward and accepts the role of sufferer as ringbearer. He is able to do so because a fellowship of men, hobbits, elves and trolls join him in the journey. Ultimately his journey to cast the ring into the fire that will consume it is a lonely one, shared only with his friend Samwise Gamgee. Through out Peter Jackson’s treatment of Tolkien’s mythic story, we see Frodo change as he absorbs the suffering that comes with being the ringbearer. Frodo’s greatness comes from his determination to see his quest through to the end no matter what the consequences. Through suffering and the acceptance of his own mortality, Frodo does his duty and accomplishes what no other character in this story could do. Through the faithful long-suffering friendship of Sam, Frodo is able to bear the suffering through to the end of his quest. For Frodo, this suffering remains a mark forever on his life, a living presence that eventually leads him away from the Shire.

Suffering, Heroism and Community
It is not unusual for contemporary films to feature suffering as a human experience. Often this suffering is viewed as a victimization of a person, rather than an experience that leads to strength, courage and friendship.

As we see in Harry Potter, the core of his suffering is from the loss of parents. Death in our society is treated as inconvenience. It is the most inexplicable experience. Our culture hates to acknowledge our mortality. We retreat into unreality as a way of not dealing with it. Yet as we see in Harry Potter, a story that takes place in a fantastic world of wizards and witches, reality is filled with death and suffering, and out of that experience comes personal greatness and the salvation of community.

In Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, Yoda says, Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. I sense much fear in you.”  This is the conventional wisdom of our time. So, we run away from the emotions of fear, anger, and hate because we do not want suffering. But what Yoda does not say, and what we see in Harry, is that these feelings are real, and that most of us suffer in silence because we are afraid to let the reality of what we feel out. Yet, when we face suffering as reality, we find the opportunity to discover virtues that bring strength. So, in Harry, we see not a person who has given in to his anger, but rather see his anger in the context of the love and fellowship of his friends. They are the counterbalance that transforms the sufferer from victim to hero.

Finding Strength in Suffering
I can’t tell you will find strength in the suffering you experience. That is for you to discover on your own with people who care about you. Regardless whether your suffering is self-imposed or an affliction from some other source, recognize that your struggle to find strength will make you a person who is able to befriend others who suffer in the same way. Ron and Hermione’s friendship with Harry was deepened by their sharing in his experience of suffering. Frodo and Sam were transformed through the suffering they shared. I don’t believe we can go looking for people to share our suffering. Rather, the key to finding strength is our recognition and empathetic response to other’s suffering. In effect, we must give strength to find the strength that we need.

The embarrassment of failure, the humiliation of a lost job, the emptiness that comes with the loss of a loved one, or the anger that accompanies being the victim of another person’s cruelty can become a source strength for greatness, if we let it. We see this in Harry. Can we see it in ourselves? I hope so.


United 93

Just returned from watching United 93, the first film depicting the events of September 11, 2001.  It is not a dramatic film in the typical theatrical sense.  It is simply a depiction of what happened during those morning hours in September.  Some of the actors are people who are playing the roles that they had on that day. We watch as detached observers as events unfold. We know what will happen, but are unable to step in and help.

The action takes place on United flight 93 from Newark to San Francisco, in the control rooms of the FAA, and in the NORAD air command center.

As the film ends, not a sound could be heard.  It is not a tear-jerker of a movie in the traditional sense.  It is a very sad, moving film.  It treats the victims with the respect that is due them.  We are placed in their context wondering how we would respond.  The image of men and women rising up out of their seats to charge the terrorists will give others the courage to do the same if ever, God forbid, it comes to that again.

Whether the impression is intended, though I suspect it is, I left with two other reactions.  One is that really poor communication and coordination between government agencies didn’t begin with Katrina. It is a system lost in internal process without clarity about outcomes. 

Two, that our divisive, self-interested political culture increases the prospects that terrorism will succeed. Why, because while politicians work to pad their campaign money chests with lobbyist money, the bureaucratic system of government cannot function in a state of crisis.

The lack of repeat terrorist attack within the bounds of our country should not bring comfort as long as the political establishment is a divide house about the war on terrorism.

What the film does not answer is why this happened, only that it did.  It does not caricature the terrorists.  They simply are who they are.  A diverse group of young Moslem men whose faith overcomes their own fear of death, to bring terror to our land.  The same can be said for the passengers on United 93. They are a diverse group who conquer their own fear of death when they realize that death is inevitable. There is a lesson in their example.

I know the retelling of this story is painful for those who lost family and friends on United 93, the other flights on 9/11, and at the Pentaton and the World Trade Center.  However, because this movie exists, it may provide a means of reminding ourselves of what happened so that we won’t bow to the petty power interests of the political elites who twist the story into being something that it is not.   

Go see it.  You will not be entertained.  You will leave saddened and a bit affirmed that even in a unresponsive bureaucratic culture human beings can join together to do what has to be done.  We see in the Katrina response, and we see it here, in United 93.  It is that very willingness of individuals to take initiative to do what's right that is the counter to the terrorist's commitment to bring death to our families and land.

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The Gentle, Kind Leader - The Moral World of Leaders Part 3

First Posted April 25, 2006.

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The Gentle, Kind Leader

Leadership is a very personal, dynamic phenomenon. 

It is personal because it is involves not only personal character, but also collaborative relationships.

Excellent leaders are able to create an environment where social trust opens up the ability for the team or the organization to communicate, strategize and work together toward common goals.

In Jonathan Shay's book, Achilles in Vietnam, he writes about Patroklos, the friend and fellow-warrior of Achilles.  Here is what Shay says of Patroklos.

A veteran in our program has written: Gentle people who somehow survive the brutality of war are highly prized in a combat unit.  they have the aura of priests, even though many of them were highly efficient killers. The Iliad makes clear that Patroklos had precisely this kind of gentle character.  It was in no way incompatible with being a formidable warrior ... We learn about Patroklos's gentleness and compassion from our own observation and the reports of others.  ...

Homer asks us to believe that gentleness and compassion really were Patroklos's leading character traits, equal to his fighting prowess against the enemy.  If we fail to perceive this, we will be unable to comprehend the pain at his death.  ...

Time and again Homer makes very sure that we understand that gentleness and kindness were Patroklos's leading traits of character by bringing testimony to it from every conceivable quarter: gods, concubines, soldiers under his command, soldiers of higher rank unrelated to him, horses, and even the enemy themselves.

After a lengthy description of Patroklos's gentleness, Shay shifts to Vietnam veterans.

The Vietnam veterans who lost gentle comrades did not start out as monsters of cruelty they became in their beserk states. Philia was reciprocal, as evoked in the veteran's words quoted above, "You'd take a s***, and he'd be right there covering you. And if I take a s***, he'd be covering me. ... We needed each other to survive." Our culture insists upon the gender association of nurturance and compassion as maternal, whereas the ancient Greek culture understood philia to be equally available to both genders. Another veteran described his role in explicitly maternal terms: I became the mother hen. You know, "C'mon, c'mon, c'mon, c'mon, c'mon, get over here, get over here, Stay down. All right, now, now, everyone keep, y'know, y'know - the s*** hits the fan, hit the f***ing ground, don't worry about nothing, just say down now." It was constant now. I was watching the other five guys like they was my children.

Veterans often speak of the gentle side of themselves as having died with the special comrade with whom they experienced mutual and reciprocal maternal love.

The purpose of these lengthy quotes is to demonstrate that this observation by Shay is not just an aside, but a critical insight in his book.

I don't know how many times I have had people speak to me about people who are angry and explosive in the workplace. Some leaders do feel that yelling and screaming is an appropriate leadership tactic. I think of R. Lee Ermey's Marine D.I. in Full Metal Jacket as the classic angry leader. Other people may not have a violent temper, but they lack the kind of people skills that come with being a gentle, kind leader. A May FastCompany article on the Alpha Exec is another example. (HT: Brad Respess)

What this suggests to me is that every leader is a combination of strengths and weaknesses, and many them begin at the intersection of psychology and character. I know this sounds obvious. But what is often obvious is also not well understood. It is the nature of character in leaders that is not understood well.

When I read Shay's description of Patroklos (see above) I see two fundamental character traits. Courage and kindness. This isn't the courage that makes it possible to bungee jump off the New River Bridge on Bridge Day. This is the kind of courage that is sacrificial. The kind that earns not admiration for being fearless, but trust for the willingness to put one's life on the life of another. Courage gets discussed because it is cool and fits with our prevailing culture of physical extremes in pursuit of the new great adrenaline rush.

The Kindness character question is hardly every discussed.  It is alluded to from time to time.  For example, Michael Yon, a free-lance journalist and blogger who has been in and out of the toughest battle fronts of the war on terror has a story written by Army sergeant Tim Boggs who is stationed in Iraq. Here's his complete report. (Go to the site to see some accompanying pictures.)

My name is Tim Boggs and I am a sergeant in the Army. I’m serving on my second deployment to Iraq. When I reflect on my experiences in my first deployment, one particular story sticks out above the rest.

I was stationed in southern Iraq near the port of Umm Qasr. I was in a quartermaster unit and our job was to support camp operations. We purified water, supplied fuel, and did what we could to help improve the quality of life for soldiers there. Our camp was set up in the middle of the desert, inside an old dump, a few minutes away from Umm Qasr. At the front gate of our camp a sign said, “Welcome to Hell” and after living on the base for just a few days I would say the sign was quite accurate. We were pretty much in the middle of the desert with no shade and no amenities. During the summer the temperature was excruciatingly hot, sometimes reaching upward of 140 degrees.

After I had been there a few weeks, I noticed that several Iraqi families had moved into tents right next to ours. It wasn’t long before some of the people in my unit began to interact with the families. We soon found out why they were living by us. One of the families had helped the military and was living there in fear of reprisals from anti-American forces. Another family, a mother and her three small children, were living there to escape their abusive husband and father. Several of the soldiers including myself became particularly fond of the kids in this family. We started hanging out with the oldest two kids, both boys, who were about six and three years-old.

The youngest was a small girl, probably no older than about a year and a half. They were beautiful children and they melted the hearts of many of the soldiers on base.

In the beginning, none of them spoke English so we were unable to communicate, but as anyone who has been in a foreign land can tell you there are ways around language barriers. We often played games with them or let them watch television with us. We would give them snacks and make sure they had enough food and water.

The longer they stayed at our base the more they became a staple in our lives. The oldest kid learned English rapidly, albeit English taught by a bunch of soldiers. The other two, for obvious reasons, were unable to talk to us but caught on quickly as we taught them basic words. Instead, their older brother did all the communicating for them and he amazed us all with his ability to play the role of the father for his siblings. He was a handsome kid with a zest for life despite his circumstances. He could brighten up anyone’s day with his smile and often reminded us why exactly we were halfway across the world, fighting in a foreign land.

The two younger kids were as equally charming as their older brother. The three-year-old boy loved playing video games with us and would come knocking on my door begging to be allowed to just watch us play. The little girl, as did most cute children, held a soft spot in all of the soldier’s hearts. Without communicating, she reaffirmed my belief that we as American soldiers were not only in Iraq to free an entire nation from an evil tyrant but also to help the Iraqi people lead a better life, which for me meant befriending a family who had fallen victim to abuse. She was a tangible example of how we were making a difference despite our unglamorous jobs.

Their mother appreciated that we played with her kids and watched them for her from time to time. She even became quite good friends with some of the women in my unit. The oldest kid would go to the chow hall each day for lunch and dinner and bring back food for his brother, sister, and mother. Everyone at the camp knew them to some capacity but because we stayed only 50 feet away from them, we treated them as family. There were times when I would fall asleep in my cot with the one year-old girl close by. Other times, the oldest kid would come get me at night when their power went out and he wanted me to fix it. We were their family, and they knew it.

I remember the first night the oldest boy came and got me to fix the power in their tent. I couldn’t really understand exactly what he was asking for but after he grabbed me by the arm and led me to his room I saw that all of their power was out. After tracing their power cord to the same generator used by the post office on base I realized that I would have to go wake up the officer in charge of the mailroom. After a half an hour searching for him, I finally located him and he agreed to let me in the mailroom. The officer and I then went to the mailroom and all I had to do was flip the breaker to the power that led to the family’s tent. When I did so, the oldest boy thanked me and we both went back to his area. His mother thanked me as best she could and I returned to my tent. I shook off the funny feeling that I was becoming a dad to these kids. I guess there is something about being summoned to fix things around the house so kids can sleep that made me feel oddly like a father.

After several months of living in a tent, we were able to move the family into one of the buildings on our small camp. The powers that be at the base found a bed for them and some small amenities, like a television and toiletries. The rest of the stuff they needed was supplied by the friends and family back home of one woman in my unit. We spent a lot of time with the family and began to teach the mother English. She seemed very appreciative. We treated them exactly like we would our own family and cared deeply about them. A few other soldiers at the camp tried hard to get them permission to come to the states but, due to circumstances beyond their control, they weren’t successful. However, by the time we were due to leave Iraq we learned that they had located a relative in a nearby town with whom they could stay, and they were going to move in around the same time we were leaving.

All in all, we spent a good ten months with the family. We were sad to leave them but grateful for the experience of not only helping them out but also having the opportunity to form a relationship that crossed over cultural boundaries, during a time of war. We could see the good changes that we knew we were bringing to these people that greatly needed and appreciated our help. I will be forever thankful for the experience and I hope that one day the kids will grow up to appreciate American soldiers and all that they did for their country. I honestly feel like the kids in Iraq will be our greatest asset in years to come.

All soldiers I know have a heart for the kids in Iraq and for the suffering they have gone through. Many of our greatest efforts have gone toward helping them live a better life, whether it is rebuilding their schools, giving them toys and candy, getting them proper medical attention, or simply playing games with them. My hope for Iraq lies in the next generation. Through the efforts of some amazing soldiers, I believe a seed has been planted that will one day bloom into a mass of young children raised on knowing the kindness and gentleness of American soldiers. When that time comes I believe we will finally enjoy the fruits of our labor in the Middle East.

What is the impact that a kind, gentle, courageous leader can have upon an organization?  What happens in a combat situation or a crisis in a business when the leadership keeps their cool, rallies the team to a unified, cohesive focused effort?  You not only find a way to get through, but you preserve the emotional and moral integrity of both the individuals and the group.

What else can we say about this?

First and foremost, is the trust factor. 

Kindness and gentleness are actions that are exhibited in relationship with others. It is not the same thing as being shy or aloof. It is not the same thing as being a wallflower. Kindness and gentleness are active expressions of an inner character that is not determined by personality, but by choice. Choice is where character is lived out.

Second, kindness and gentleness are outward focused, rather than inward focused. 

How many angry people do you know whose constant monologue is about how they are a victim of other people's action. Angry people, I find, have a difficult time owning their own place in the anger equation. A leader who understands his or her responsibility for their decisions and actions, also understands that living out that responsibility is where character gets tested. In essence, we have two choices to make. We can either blame others for our misery or not, and we can contend that others are responsible for actions to make me happy. Happiness, gentleness, kindness, courage are choices we make.  We can't transfer that responsibility to someone else, whether it is our spouse, parents, boss, elected officials or the President.

Third, as the character of the leader has its effect upon those who are lead, the character of the business also grows. 

With that character is able to become more flexible, less liable to be distracted by stress, temporary setbacks or changes in the competitive environment.

Fourth, kindness and gentleness are social characteristics.

You can't be kind by yourself. Kindness is visited upon someone. Therefore the leader's relations with others matter. Reading Shay also presented a perspective that helped me to see the relationship between Meriwether Lewis and William Clark differently. There was a companionship between them that exceeded the traditional military comradeship. They were very different men, yet they had a strong affection for one another. One of the secrets of the Lewis & Clark Expedition's success is the relationship between them. These are not meek, passive nerds. These are heroic frontiersmen whose relationship can be characterized as kind and gentle. This is certainly true of William Clark whose affection for the young child of Sacagewea and Toussaint Charbonneau, Jean-Baptiste, extended to his taking him into his household in St. Louis and providing him an education.

Lastly, to be kind and gentle allows for a more realistic expectation for the performance of people.

It enables the leader to look at his or her staff as people who require a broad range of support methods to enable them to develop within their various job roles. When people believe that you have their best interests in mind, then they will perform beyond what is expected because they want to please you. You can't take advantage of that reciprocal kindness. As my mother used to say, "You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar."

If trauma is a real condition of organizational life, then organizations need gentle, kind leaders who also have a fierce drive for achievement.  These are traits that will make the healing of an organization possible.