The End of Binary Faith

2011-04-13 09.47.57

Binary Faith is a faith in opposites.

It is the faith of the modern world in labels. Labels serve to identify who we are and more importantly who we are not.

It is what election campaigns are about.

It is what modern religion and anti-religion are about.

It is about our modern consumer choices.

It is about moral debates, advocacy, outrage and campaigns for righteousness.

Binary faith is based on creating a world of perception in distinctly defined terms of good and evil.

We are all Suckers

In the end we are all suckers. We suck because we believe the labels represent reality. We want to believe, need to believe, and so we believe. And we get sucked into a binary faith that divides the world into good guys and bad, where we are always on the side of good.

We believe in the campaign ads, and the opinion pundits, and the advertising and even our family members and neighbors.

We believe, not because they are right, but because we want to believe that they are right. We want to believe because we don't know what to believe. So, we end up believing just about anything that relieves us of the conflict of having to choose good over evil.

We choose sides because we have never learned how to stand on our own. We let others do our thinking for us. As a result, we never figure out just how manipulated we have become in the modern world of binary choices.

You can tell when people have been hooked by binary faith. Their language is filled with talking points. Simplistic statements that are intended to clarify, set apart, and remove all doubt as to the veracity and validity of their individual faith in this person, ideology, product or group. They are not statements that open up conversation, but are rather closing statements to a case that can only be made by saying, "I'm not like them!"

They laugh, cheer and celebrate when the other side is caught in some humiliating turn of phrase.  Sarcasm and condescension is the core manifestation of the binary trap we find ourselves in. We laugh along with those posing as superior intelligent beings, wanting to be like them. In reality, we show ourselves to be weak, pathetic, ill-prepared to deal with a world that is not binary. It is the basis of both comedy and political commentary today. It is shallow and non-intellectual, condescending to the listeners and demeaning to those who are the subject of derision. 

These people, often quite intelligent, with advanced degrees from prestigious institutions, have stopped thinking, and have become automatons. Automatomic thinking is thinking that occurs in a closed system of self-verifying statements, hermetically sealed off from any real, rational debate about what or who is good or evil. It is built upon the need for confirmation basis to validate one's own superior opinion.

With these closed cultures of opinion, no outliers are permitted. No real questions are allowed. Only those questions that prove the superiority of their group's position over against the inferiority of their binary opposite.

For all the connection between people the internet has brought to our world, it has not solved the problem of binary faith. In fact, it has accelerating its advance as it is easier to find and exclude people who either share or reject one’s faith.

I use the language of faith because in many respects this is the religion of the modern age. Binary faith is a belief system that provides meaning within a cult-like social structure. It is cult-like because for true believers, it is a faith that excludes the heretic and unbeliever.

For faith seekers, binary faith provides a basis for identity and acceptance into a community of faith whose demands are simple. Just believe and never doubt. Total compliance, no questions asked and inclusion is ours.

Modern Day Good and Evil

The supreme problem with binary faith is its inability to be honest about the real world. Binary faith is an answer to a dualistic abstraction of what is good and evil. “We are good; they are evil.” Simple faith for complex times.

The reality is that each person, culture, ideology, nation-state, religion, and political movement is a rich mixture of good and evil. Behind every evil act is some value which has been twisted for evil ends.

There is no way to absolutely separate good and evil as totally distinct entities. They live like kudzu vines intertwined around a forest of trees. Virtually impossible to eradicate the parasitic vines without killing the host.

So it is with the world as it exists. To rid the world of evil requires us to separate it out from that which is good, and then eradicate it. However, this takes us back the old binary trap of only two choices, choose the good or the evil.

But life isn’t so simple. It is much more complex, and the complexity requires us to be alert, reflective and aware of what is present before us.

The problem is that binary faith doesn’t want that. Good and evil are situational choices we make every day. We create good lives by making good choices, and evil by bad choices. It seems like a simple binary choice, but it is not. They are choices of degree and intention, choices of how my personal preferences affect the lives of others, measured in degrees of change and significance of impact.

To make good choices we need three things.

First, we need a community that is open and hospitable to people outside our faith.

The best description of this sort of community that I have found comes from the ancient Christian writer Paul, who in a letter to a church in the Greek community of Corinth that is caught up in its own binary trap. He used the metaphor of the body to describe the kind of faith community this church should exhibit. The metaphor follows a understandable line of thought of contrasting various body parts to show how each is essential to the function of the body. He may be writing about a specific church, but it applies to every faith system, regardless of type. Near the end of this metaphorical reflection, he writes this words.

“On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” (1 Corinthians 12:22-26)

In a binary faith, we individually determine who is the weaker, the less honorable, the least respectable person in society. These are the people we reject because they represent the other side, or those we feel that must be protected because they are unable to think for themselves and stand on their own.

The result is a faith where suffering is not shared, and honor offered only to those who are most the single-minded and fanatical in their belief. 

Good and evil aren’t binary forces. They are complex choices that either create the kind of community Paul illustrates or destroys it. Communities that are not based on demonizing the other are places where one may discover, in one’s self, how to deal with the tension between the forces of good and evil that are within each one of us, and then learn to create goodness in ways that build alignments between opposites.

Second, we need a clearly defined value system.

This value system cannot be binary, but universal and holistic. It must be able to state what is the good for all humanity. It cannot simply be a belief that divides the world into two classes, good vs. evil. Or a system that is simply self-serving.  Many universal, trans-cultural values may require my own self-sacrifice to be fully realized. This is antithetical to a binary faith.

Imagine a political faith or a commercial faith where these values are prominent.

Third, we each need to be persons of character.

This means to live a whole life, not some perception of life based on our political and consumer choices that we've been suckered into. For our identity to be based on who we are, how we relate to others, and how we live our lives each day requires us to not divide the world into good and evil, haves and have-nots, in and out, weak or strong, honorable or dishonorable, acceptable or rejected.

Character comes from daily making choices that elevate the world we live in rather than destroying it through division. These choices are informed by learning to think for ourselves, listening to others and deciding a path in life that leads to being the person that our values say we wish to be. For this to happen, we need to be clear about what we believe and have a community of people who are willing to share in the suffering of people. As a result, it will be a community that also celebrates and honors each person in their advancement in the character of their living.

I realize that this may sound like I'm advocating a kind relativism that is at the heart of the modern notion of tolerance. I am not. I find tolerance, as presently practiced, a condescending mask towards the other, and a faith unable to address genuine issues of good and evil.

I don't believe all people are essentially good or bad. I do believe that some people choose to be evil, violent and destructive, and should be understood in this way. I believe that good resides in each person, yet at war with those inclinations toward evil that fills our world with hatred and arrogance.

I am not saying that all faiths, ideologies and beliefs are the same. I believe that there are a universal set of human values that have always existed that if lived fully would create a better world.  

The End of Binary Faith

The end of binary faith comes in the collapse of faith into no faith and alienation from the connections that bind people together in community. I believe this moment in history is coming. The ideologies and institutions of the modern world are built upon a binary platform. It is not sustainable. What follows is not better.

Our hope is in ourselves to create communities based upon value systems that include all people without dividing them into preferential categories. These communities will thrive or fail on the character of the people in them.

This is part of the future that I see coming. It is not all bleak, but hopeful. It is though because I am convinced that once a person decides to think for themselves, to reject the binary designations of society and create communities of character, then the strength and sustainability of society will grow.

Of course, we must stop being suckers if this is to change. We must stop being manipulated by those who see us as mindless sheep willing to do their bidding.

I am not a utopian. I don't believe that if we are just nice to one another, the world will be a better place. That is a strategy of mindless tolerance of evil that clearly exists in our world.

I am a realist. I see the end of binary faith as a realistic hope for how we might live in peace and harmony in the future.

Still Waters Still Flow

Snake River Swimming Hole

In my previous post, Leading by Vacuum, and in my two-part presentation The Flow of Leadership and Community, I use the concept of flow as a way of understanding how change "flows" through our life and work. The flow of a stream follows the path of least resistance. It is persistent in finding that path, and renews itself everyday for that journey.

If we speak of flow in human terms, as Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi has done by bringing this important idea to the world, I believe we will understand how people and by extension, the world, may find peace.

Peace is not the absence of conflict, for I do not think that is possible. Rather, peace is the ability to be one's true self in the midst of conflict. To live with integrity is to be at peace, which creates one of flow. This peace is the product of love finding its completeness in our life and work.

Flow = Love

The ancient Greeks had four words for love. They are:

Agape - unconditional, sacrificial love

Eros - physical, erotic love

Phileo - friendship

Storge - affection like a family

In our modern world, we have split these loves apart, treated them like separate loves. As a result, we become people split, fragmented, with too many tributaries seeking their own flow. This is what it means to be a broken person, and to lose the conditions for peace and genuine flow.

As my title suggests, Still Waters Still Flow, we must find a depth of life experience that gives us a clear sense of purpose to each day. Then we will not be in conflict, but in the flow of life. Being complete, as whole persons, flow brings the peace that we need for a world in the midst of conflict.

To pick and choose between which of the four loves I am to use to express my relationship towards people means that our relationship will be incomplete, ultimately unsatisfying and disappointing.

When flow happens, we discover a kind of wholeness or completeness which brings fulfillment and contentment. This is a depth of life experienced that is expressed in stillness and peace.

This is what lies behind our loss of and desire for community. It is why our virtual relationships are incomplete, never fully realizing the potential that exists in any relationship. If we are not complete people, how can our relationships be whole and happy, and how can the world in which we seek to change also become whole and healed of its conflicts?

As I've said many times, as human beings, we desire meaning, and healthy relationships, and ultimately for our lives to make a difference that matters. Without each of the four loves functioning in our life, our relationships and our work, it is not hopeful that our desires in life will find fulfillment.

Affection and Friendship

There are many people for whom I have affection. I care about them, appreciate who they are, and wish to be with them more than I am presently able to be. There are hundreds, may more than a thousand people who fall into this category for me.

I wish for many of these relationships of affection to become friendships, where we identify a certain common or shared desire for one another's happiness. It is the sort of thing you see in bars as friends gather. There is connection and happiness because the relationship transcends simple appreciation.  There is something shared which links each person together in a meaningful, fulfilling way.

My guess is that many of our relationships are like this. People who are acquaintances, who transcend a shared affection to become genuine friends, often only for a short period of time. Like old high school buddies reconnecting on Facebook or at reunions discovering that those shared experiences in high school produced friendships that have survived even the disconnect of time and place.

Or the deeper connection that takes place when someone becomes ill with cancer, and the care of neighbors pours over in affection and genuine caring. We step forward to care in these moments partially believing that if we were in their shoes, people would care for us in a similar way.


The physical love of eros is more than sexual. Unfortunately, it has been reduced to this in our society. Erotic love is embodied love, a love of the whole person towards another. It is something larger and deeper, more significant and difficult to achieve. It is what we call intimacy. 

This kind of love shatters the illusions of appearances. It is openness and vulnerability, a desire that we all want, but too often find difficult to achieve. It is why we can still be alone or lonely while in the midst of a crowd of friends. It is a question of the depth of intimacy that we share with one another.

We want all the physical benefits of intimacy. Yet the emotional, psychological and spiritual openness that is required is something we often resist. This is why, in my estimation, pornography is such a powerful force in our culture. It presents the illusion that intimacy can be achieved without the other three loves. It is purely erotic, without a foundation of relationship, or genuine affection and friendship. 

Sexual intimacy touches deeply our physical desires for relationship. Yet, it can be incomplete if that openness is not feeding our shared affection and friendship. It is why the current popularity of having "friends with benefits" is really not surprising at all.  It makes perfect sense to desire intimacy with those with whom you already share some personal meaning and friendship. What is missing is the commitment that is needed for intimacy to be complete.

Understand, I'm not advocating for all our friendships to have a sexual side. I am saying that our desire for intimacy goes deeper than our sexuality to the very core of our identity. It is about being known as a real person by another real person, not by someone who is playing a role in the virtual reality of the appearence of intimacy.

Complete Love

It is the fourth love, agape, which is the most powerful. It brings completeness to the other loves through which peace and flow are discovered.

It is by far the most difficult love to live fully. It holds within it the highest ideals of human relationships, of love at its most complete and fulfilling. Yet, it is the hardest because it requires the greatest sacrifice to give it.

Agape love is self-giving love. It is sacrifical and unconditional. It requires great maturity to love someone, not for what what it means to me, but for what it means to the other. It is where our affection, friendship and intimacy find their complete flourishing.

This love is not a love of convenience. It is a love of commitment.

This is why agape is a love which is the most powerful and transformational. For it to become the love between two people requires a laying aside of our individual right to be fulfilled, so that we might together find it as a shared fulfillment. It is a costly love through which we gain the best of all loves.

This is why this love is usually associated with romantic love. It is the love that throughout human history has been associated with marriage. Yet, it is more than that. It is also the love associated with a passion or calling to service. It is the love that makes it possible for the other three loves to find their wholeness and connection.

The Impact of Love

Am I setting up an impossible scenario for our relationships? Of course I am! For without a standard, an ideal, or a vision of the highest in human experience, then there is no clear direction to the flow of our lives.

When the love I describe becomes complete within us, and seeks out others who also have found a completeness in the love within them, then a depth of relationship results that changes us. We are transformed by loving, not simply by the idea of love.

All these human characteristics that we celebrate and honor, like Respect, Trust, Confidence, Responsibility, Courage, Empathy and Self-sacrifice find a ground upon which to grow. For ultimately, flow rises from our own capacity to be the person we wish others to be.

I wish I could say that all this can come without pain or suffering but it can't. In fact, it is the very comforts of our modern life that stand in the way of a fulfilled, complete and flourishing life. Those comforts present the appearance of strength and completeness. But too often they are the curtain that blinds us to harsher realities of the world.

For still waters to run deep requires the dredging of the stream bed of our lives to remove all those barriers to flow. The more courageous, the more willing we are to raise the standards of our life and work, the more willing we are to be committed to do the hard work of changing our lives, the more willing we are to defy fear, and move into unknown territories of discovery, the more we will discover that still waters still flow bringing peace into a world of conflict.

This is not simply about our individual experience of flow. It is also about developing the capacity to create flow for our families, our businesses and communities. For this to happen, we must become complete in our capacity to love. What more could we say than I have found love's completeness in my life and work, I am satisfied, fulfilled and at peace.

Thanks and Honor - Veterans Day 2010

Curled Props

The crew of my father's B-29 stationed on Guam during World War II. My father is standing farthest left. Yes, this is after they crash landed. Just another day at the office.

His office, just behind the wings in the bubble turret.

A month before my father was to participate in the Flight of Honor from his  home community, he passed away. Guy Maffett, one of the organizers, in memory of my father, escorted him on the trip with his picture and this flag. Thank you Guy for the honorable citizen that you are. Our family appreciates very much your kindness in honoring our father's memory during our time of loss.

Triad Flight of Honor May 2010
Triad (NC) Flight of Honor May 2010

19th BG group picture
19th Bomber Group, USAF, Reunion, October 2009

My father is in the maroon sweater and white cap on the left side of the picture.


World War II Memorial, Washington D.C.

The notion that we as citizens have a solemn obligation to the men and women who serve in the Armed Forces should not be a controversial subject. Yet it is. We who are the beneficiaries of their sacrifices owe them our respect and honor. We do so because the freedoms and prosperity that enjoy as Americans are not an entitlement, but rather a privilege that requires our dedication and stewardship.

On this Veterans Day, remember not the politics of war and peace, but rather benefits that are ours through the sacrifices of others.

For all who serve and have served, thank you.

Are leaders born?

My friend, FC, asked me the other day in response to my Weekly Leader column, Luis Urzua: Exception or Standard? whether I thought he was a born leader. I responded with,

"Not really. I'd say he is an intentional leader. It is a moral question of choosing to lead, and lead in a particular way, and not one of personality or talent."

In respect to FC, let me offer more explanation.

For a long time the nature / nurture question of human development has been a standard by which questions, like the one FC raised is discussed. The longer I deal with issues of leadership, the more I see the nature/nurture, born or made question as a secondary, less relevant issue. Because I see too many people who would not be characterized as being born a leader, who are leaders whose life and work make a genuine difference.

Talent is a major topic in organizational circles today. The conversation revolves around how to recruit, train and retain top-flight talent. There is definitely an aspect of this discussion that relates to the question of whether some is born to be a leader. I am not saying that talent doesn't matter, only that it isn't what makes a leader.

Leadership is only realized in action, by what one does with the talent they are born with.

The personality-centric view of leadership commonly called the "great man"(sic) or heroic theory of leadership, promotes a limited, idealize view of what a leader does. It has suggested, wrongly in my opinion, that leadership is a product of the projection of a leader's personality upon a group or organization. It is condescending to followers, colleagues, employees or other leaders.

Luis Urzua's leadership is seen in the choices that he made. They are moral choices, not simply tactical or strategic ones.

To lead in the circmustances that he and the other 32 miners faced, required him to step beyond managing. His leadership created an environment that elevated a collection of men, who had a death sentence upon their heads as soon as the cave-in began, to be a team that survived in a remarkably healthy state.

Luis Urzua chose to lead by unifying his men through confidence, discipline, structure and a mutuality of equality. His leadership did not allow individual concerns that each man had to eclipse the needs of the whole group. Only as a whole and intact team would they have survived, and done so as well as they did.

Luis Urzua's leadership reminds me of the leadership of Admiral James Stockdale, the highest ranking POW during the Vietnam War. I wrote about him here, here, and here. Their stories are similiar in that both were leaders of a group of men were living in a life and death situation. And both chose to lead in a manner that unified a group of men who easily could have lost hope, composure and began to think of their own survival as of utmost importance.

Leadership is a choice, and not a natural one. The natural choice is to put one's own welfare first, instead of the team's. I don't believe people are born to sacrifice their own benefit for the sake of others. It is something that is learned through mentorship, example, training and experience. For those for whom this kind of leadership seems so natural, my sense is that as a child they were influenced by leaders of this sort, and their home experience provided a learning environment to gain these values.

For Luis Urzua, it may well have been playing soccer. For James Stockdale, the lessons learned in studying the philosophy of the ancient Stoics. In both we see leadership that made the difference under the most extreme circumstances. As I point out in my Weekly Leader column, Luis Urzua's leadership is not the exception. It is the standard.

Quick Takes: The Six Currencies of Credibility

In Roy Williams', the Wizard of Ads, Monday Morning Memo today, writes about the Six Currencies of Credibility.

Tom Wanek believes credibility can be “purchased” by risking one or more of six currencies. The more you put at risk, the more believable your message. 

As I read the memo, I realized that what Williams and Wanek are pointing towards is an older idea that goes back to the ancients. The idea - that sacrifice for the greater good is how heroes are formed. 

It is it any wonder why members of our military are honored for their sacrifices on an annual basis in ceremonies across the country. They place their lives on the line on the field of battle so citizens won't have to do so on the streets in their neighborhoods. Talk to those who have served in battle, and they will tell you, the only heroes are the ones who have died in service to their country.

Isn't also true that Wall Street CEO's have received a bad rap simply because they can demonstrate no sacrifice of their own privilege in order for the great good to be found.

Williams writes,

5. Reputation & Prestige
In a report released two weeks ago by CNN/Opinion Research, George W. Bush had an approval rating of just 24 percent. In a press conference held the following week, the President said he regretted saying he wanted Osama bin Laden "dead or alive" and that he had urged the Iraqi insurgents in 2003, “bring ‘em on.” He said he was sorry such language made the world believe he was “not a man of peace.” By putting his prestige at risk and eating a slice of humble pie, George W. Bush regained some of his lost credibility, don’t you think?

Isn't this the same challenge that Barack Obama now faces?  Campaign promises turn into governing expectations. His credibility is on the line. What will he risk in his reputation and prestige in order to earn credibility?  If Bush lost it for misstatements and poorly understanding the importance of public perception, can Obama avoid it by being different.

Read Roy Williams paragraph again. The key idea embedded there is the need for humility. Credibility comes from risk, and humbly recognizing that I'm placing my reputation and prestige on the line for the greater good. The greater good could be world peace, or, it could be a client's indecision about proceeding with a project. What are they looking for? Humble circumspection. Credibility comes from recognition that I don't know everything, and yet, I'm confident that we'll find a way through. 

So, some kinds of risk is good, and builds strength.  How are you building greater credibility during this time of economic disruption? As we turn from a nation of consumers to one of spending skeptics, credibility becomes one our most important assets. Spend it wisely.

You can sign up for Roy Williams Monday Morning Memo at the top of this page. It is one of the best thought pieces I get every week.

UPDATE: Nows here is the beginning of some credibility on Wall Street.

Goldman Chiefs Give Up Bonuses: Seven Top Executives to Forgo Millions in 2008; Move Could Pressure Other Firms

Our Choice - Our Responsibility

On November 4, or before if you choose to vote early, we'll cast our votes for the candidate of our choice. It is our choice. The passions and anxieties of this election season will reach their culmination and life will return to normal.  And we turn the reins of power and authority over to the winners.

It is becoming abundantly clear to me that we cannot simply be content in making our choice. We need to accept the responsibility of that choice.  What does this mean?

1. The election is not a winner take all horse race.  This isn't about who wins and loses. It is about who will lead and govern the nation. I have friends and family on both sides who passionately believe in their candidate. Some of them will be disappointed. What I am not sure most of them understand is why the other side has made their choice both for and against the candidates.  The reality, in taking a page from James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds, is that all the pluses and minuses of both candidates and the parties matter. The aggregate perspective should be the one we all come to because it will make us wiser citizens. However, the fact that our perception of candidates is dictated by the media and not by our conversations with family and friends makes it a necessity that we talk more about principles of leadership and policy than simply treating this election as an extended Sportscenter highlight reel.

2. The choice we is make is ours. With that choice we are aligning ourselves with a particular philosophy of governing. What we must do is own that choice. And do so in a way that our elected officials have not been able to do throughout this financial crisis. By owning our choice, we should also accept the inevitable failures that come with those policies.

Understand what I am saying. I'm becoming increasingly concerned that none of the presidential candidates as well as their colleagues in Congress are up to the challenge of governing. Their perspectives are too narrow, too self-serving, too immune to criticism, and too lacking in their own personal sacrifice. In this sense they are not to be trusted with a blank check and the keys to the family car.

It our responsibility to hold them accountable. This is not an easy thing to do. It requires vigilance on our part as citizen. That is the responsibility that comes with the privilege of having a choice in how leads our country.

As a result, We The People must lead our leaders. If we don't, what we have experienced the past nine years from both parties will be repeated.   

Quick Takes: Robert Kaplan on the other Vietnam experience

"The Vietnam analogy looms ever larger in the debate over Iraq, but the U.S. military has memories of that conflict that the public doesn't." Robert Kaplan

Most reporting on the war and politics is more Elmer Gantry than what we think of as journalism.  It is an evangelical politics ( small "e") attempting to convinced us to convert to their expert perspective.  I don't watch network tv news any more, and I avoid newspaper articles on the war and politics. I know that more is happening in the war than what gets reported, and I am not interested in any candidate, and will be even less so a year from now when the Presidential race kicks into high gear.   I offer this perspective as a preface to Robert Kaplan's latest The Atlantic Monthly piece - Rereading Vietnam - about the very different experience that Vietnam era soldiers had during that war.

What first drew me to Kaplan was his book - Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos.  He like Victor Davis Hanson understood that the roots of  Western societies success on the battle field is rooted in a 3000 year old philosophical mindset that was first articulated by Homer in  The Illiad, and then preserved in the writings of historians like Thucydides, Herodotus and Virgil.  At the heart of these writings is the notion of duty, honor, loyalty, sacrifice and personal character.  We speak of these as ancient virtues, but it is these virtues that have been at the core of the US military strength throughout our history. 

Kaplan's article points to soldier biographies and personal writings on Vietnam that present a picture of war that most Americans have not heard.  He begins with the story of Bud Day ( Robert Coram, biographer of John Boyd, has just published Day's biography. The Boyd book is essential reading, and I'm sure the Day book is too.) Kaplan describes Bud Day, and then tells a story.

In 1943, at the age of 18, George Everette "Bud" Day of Sioux City, Iowa, enlisted in the Marines. He served in the Pacific during World War II, and later became a fighter pilot. He flew the F-84F Thunderstreak during the Korean War and the F-100F Super Sabre in Vietnam. Bud Day, a legendary "full-blooded jet-jock" as one recent account dubbed him, would see service in all three wars as a sanctified whole: For him the concept of the "long war" was something he had built his life around in the middle decades of the 20th century. As an Air Force major, he was the first commander of the squadron of fast FACs (forward air controllers), who loitered daily for hours over North Vietnamese airspace, seeking out targets for other fighter bombers. With the most dangerous air mission in the Vietnam War, Day and the other fast FACs were known as "Misty warriors." Misty was the radio call sign that Day himself had chosen for the squadron, inspired by his favorite Johnny Mathis song. The Mistys were "an aggressive bunch of bastards who pressed the fight; they got down in the weeds" and "trolled for trouble," writes Robert Coram in a recently published book about Bud Day, American Patriot. On August 26, 1967, Bud Day's luck ran out. He was shot down over North Vietnam.

Then the story.

In December 1967, a prisoner was dumped in Day's cell on the outskirts of Hanoi, known as the Plantation. This prisoner's legs were atrophied and he weighed under 100 pounds. Day helped scrub his face and nurse him back from the brink of death. The fellow American was Navy Lieutenant Commander John Sidney McCain III of the Panama Canal Zone. As his health improved, McCain's rants against his captors were sometimes as ferocious as Day's. The North Vietnamese tried and failed, through torture, to get McCain to accept a release for their own propaganda purposes: The lieutenant commander was the son of Admiral John McCain Jr., the commander of all American forces in the Pacific. "Character," writes the younger McCain, quoting the 19th century evangelist Dwight Moody, "is what you are in the dark," when nobody's looking and you silently make decisions about how you will act the next day.

It is this character that Kaplan's writing continues to identify.

Kaplan spends a good deal of time on Admiral James Stockdale's writings.  His books are not just personal accounts of being a fighter pilot and the highest ranking POW during the Vietnam War, but a philosophical link back in time to the ancient wisdom that emerged out of Greek and Roman civilization.

In an era where being "manly" is treated more as a fashion sense (a manly body wash for your man suit.) than as a type of character, these men that Kaplan covers in this essay are worth knowing because they are manly in the sense that Achilles would understand.

War isn't as simple as the media pundits and politicians would like us to think. It isn't a management problem. It isn't a law enforcement problem.  It isn't something that can be managed like you manage you kids after school schedule. It is life and death, not only for soldiers, but for innocent civilians.  It is a clash of philosophies about life, society and the future.

Over the past four and a half years, as the Iraq war has been waged, and as I've listened to the politicians and the media pundits pontificate on the war, the question that continually came to mind - "Of these people, who would sacrifice their life so that the people in their neighborhood could remain safe and free?"  None of these people give me confidence that they are trust-worthy in this regard. Why?  Because they fail to understand what Kaplan understands. That duty, honor and sacrifice are virtues that make societies strong and great. It is one of the reasons that this virulent form of Islam is so difficult to defeat. They understand that self-sacrifice is necessary if victory is to be gained.

Kaplan tells the stories of men who were willing to endure pain and mutilation in order to preserve the lives of their fellow soldiers. They did so knowing that to fail would mean death, but more importantly dishonor.  I deeply respect the men and women who serve in our armed forces.  I respect them for their courage, their love for their country and for the character they display that is the foundation of peace in the future.

HT: Instapundit

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

First Posted April 25, 2006.


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.