Two Men, Two Destinies

“If you have no character your destiny is tragedy.”  These words offered by former federal prosecutor John Flannery as he described the likely outcome of Donald Trump’s presidency and life.  This notion of self-inflicted fate has been around for centuries as when  Oedipus the King was advised by Tiresias, “Creon is not your downfall, no, you are your own” (Sophocles, circa 430 B.C.).  The remarkable thing about the noose that appears to be tightening around Trump’s neck is that his nemesis, Robert Mueller, has yet to speak one word.  Trump’s addiction to peevish impulse, fearmongering, and deceit are tightening the rope with virtually no help from others.  All one must do is look at the faces of Trump, Rudy Giuliani, Stephen Miller, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, et al—that are often either bursting with rage or spewing contempt—to know these folks are not only in deep trouble, they know they are in deep trouble.  Contrast that with the seldom seen face of Mueller or, moreover, the face of John McCain even as he faced imminent death.  When you are on the right side of honor, tranquility is easy.

McCain’s final words were full of gratitude, self-awareness, and grace.  He spoke of the “privilege of serving,” of his “love for America,” and his “love of my family.”  He easily acknowledged “I have made mistakes”  and even in his life that included physical and psychological torture, and humiliating defeat, he claimed he was “the luckiest person on earth.”  In the end, he knew he had “lived and died a proud American.”  These are words of honor.  These are words of a man at peace.  He also had a message many thought was aimed at Trump.

We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.

Those same ‘many’ wonder if Trump was listening; if he got the message.  But the question is not was Trump listening, the question is, are we?

McCain also deftly arranged his eulogies at his memorial service in the National Cathedral to be delivered by prior political foes, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.  He knew that the accolades of former adversaries would be more powerful than those of advocates.  And, he wanted to show the world the spirit of his often stated credo: “we must serve a cause greater than ourselves.”  Of McCain, Bush said,

John was above all, a man with a code.  He lived by a set of public virtues that brought strength and purpose to his life and to his country.  He was courageous, with a courage that frightened his captors and inspired his countrymen.  He was honest, no matter whom it offended.  Presidents were not spared.  He was honorable, always that recognizing his opponents were still patriots and human beings.  He loved freedom, with a passion of a man who knew its absence.  He respected the dignity inherent in every life, a dignity that does not stop at borders and cannot be erased by dictators.  Perhaps above all, John detested the abuse of power. He could not abide bigots and swaggering despots.

Obama, more direct perhaps than Bush, but with a subtlety he mastered as a target of vitriol and racism himself, summoned us to engage anew.

So much of our politics, our public life, our public discourse can seem small and mean and petty.  Trafficking in bombastic manufactured outrage, it’s politics that pretends to be brave and tough, but in fact is born of fear.  John called on us to be bigger than that.  He called on us to be better than that.  That’s perhaps how we honor him best, by recognizing that there are some things bigger than party or ambition or money or fame or power, that the things that are worth risking everything for, principles that are eternal, truths that are abiding.

The proverbial elephant NOT in the cathedral was, of course, Donald Trump, whom the press pool reported left the White House in his white MAGA hat midway through Meghan McCain’s remarks, perhaps for a round of golf.  Meghan, the most direct of all in assailing the antithesis of her father, Donald Trump, gave the most eloquent eulogy of the day closing with a line that will, no doubt, be broadcast over and over: “The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again because America was always great.”

I have no hope whatsoever that any of these messages will be considered by Trump.  There is no space to comprehend virtue in a mind addled by avarice.  Again, the question is not did he listen, but are we?  The challenge is to restore our own sense of honor to deliver America to a better place than the dark mendacity that is Trump.

May we embrace the destiny of honor McCain so ably bestowed, and allow the destiny of tragedy to be Trump’s and Trump’s alone.

By |2018-09-01T20:28:52+00:00September 1st, 2018|Current, Donald Trump, Leadership|0 Comments

Who Will Save the American Dream?

As Trump tramples the American Dream in favor of his despotic nightmare, no one party or candidate has emerged as its savior.  The Democrats best effort at fashioning a new narrative has given us the limp ‘n lame “A Better Deal” while the progressive icon, Senator Elizabeth Warren, decries a “rigged system,” both weirdly attempting to sound more Trumpy than the other (see my recent post “Democrats, It’s Time to Wise Up,” August 15, 2017).  Whoever develops a narrative wrapped around the tenets of the American Dream—under attack since the rise of the Tea Party and under siege during the Trump presidency—will likely do very well in 2018 and beyond.  However, to date, Trump’s opposition has become so disoriented with the horrors of his presidency it is either strangely emulating him as in the case of the Democratic Party leadership, or so narrowly focused on particular issues and interests as to be blinded to the strategic imperative of crafting a more powerful narrative to capture the support and enthusiasm of enough Americans to seize power and affect change.

The American Dream is a very simple proposition, first put forward in 1931 during the Great Depression by historian James Truslow Adams in his essay, “Epic in America.”  Adams wrote,

[The American Dream is] that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. [It is] a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.

Perhaps the American Dream is being ignored as a rallying cry because it is too obvious.  Perhaps Trump’s opponents are taking it for granted.  But, it is exactly what Trump is attempting to destroy in his pursuit of fascist power, and it is precisely what needs to be employed to unify Americans against the hackneyed recklessness of Trump’s Republican Party.  “Make America Great Again”—Trump’s fraudulent appeal to the American voter—can and should be defeated by the simple elegance of “Caretakers of the American Dream.”

While Trump advocates exclusion, uniformity, regression, supremacy, stasis, exploitation, indifference, dominance, authoritarianism, segregation, fear, division, and hate; the opposition is eerily silent about inclusion, diversity, progress, equality, development, empathy, democracy, integration, courage, unity, and love—the characteristics that underpin the American Dream.  The opposition is so appalled it appears confused, or at least distracted, which is, of course, exactly what Trump wants.  And, each and every progressive issue and interest fits nicely under the umbrella of the American Dream as it embraces fundamental American ambitions, including “the pursuit of happiness.”  Fairness, equity, and justice are at the Dream’s heart as civil and human rights, healthcare, immigration, and respect for science and the environment fit comfortably in its shadow.

The British scholar, Lawrence Freedman, argues in his epic study, Strategy: a History (2013) that strategy is “the art of creating power.”  Trump and his Republican Party have waived the flag in support of white economic nationalism to create theirs.  It is time someone or some party started waiving the flag to save the American Dream, where our power as a nation truly resides.

 

By |2017-09-27T22:03:40+00:00September 5th, 2017|American Identity, Donald Trump, General, Leadership|0 Comments

A Stoic’s Guide to Surviving Trump

Regardless of your political affiliation, it is difficult to observe the chaos in the White House without grave concern for the presidency and the country. Our smartphones flash and vibrate with each new ejaculated Trump tweet that emanates from the alternate reality he has created, which defies both logic and basis in objective fact.  Like all presidencies, the modus operandi of the administration reflects the president’s persona, which in Trump’s case is utterly valueless and prefers deceit and diversion to maximize distraction as a veil for incompetence and avarice.  A mayhem maniac who could explode at any moment has succeeded no-drama Obama; Trump’s wick seems always lit.  However, like the presidents who preceded him, Trump too shall pass. America and the world will survive as long as those of us with a conscience and reasoned intellectual vigor stand and resist this deviant.  And, to survive Trump, ancient philosophers—particularly the Stoics—offer valuable practices founded in the following eight disciplines.

1.     See things as they are and question the givens, starting with the realization that—fundamentally—the United States and the world are in the best shape ever.  All presidents occasionally lie and all, at one time or another, promote fear to consolidate their power.  Trump has, however, excelled among his predecessors in combining deceit with fear, making it the dominant modality of his presidency.  The truth, however, is that the world and the country have never been wealthier, healthier, or more safe.  As historian Yuval Noah Harari argues in his latest book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, for the first time in the history of humankind famine, plague, and war are no longer meta-threats in the global system.

More people die today from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals combined.  In the early twenty-first century, the average human is far more likely to die from bingeing at McDonald’s than from drought, Ebola, or an al-Qaeda attack.[1]

Furthermore, to debunk one of Trump’s favorite claims, non-immigrant American citizens are incarcerated at twice the rate of documented immigrants, and three times the rate of undocumented immigrants.  In science and engineering, immigrants far excel non-immigrants in educational achievement.  If piety is your metric, immigrants claim religion at a rate 18% higher than non-immigrants and start businesses at twice the rate on non-immigrants.[2]  Hardly the drug-dealers, rapists, and terrorists Trump continues to warn us about.  Do we have problems?,  absolutely, but upon close examination we find that we do not have capacity or capability problems today, as we have throughout history, we have distribution problems that can be affected through mustering political will to deploy policies of sustainable redistribution.  A stoic always pauses to check and crosscheck claims (especially of politicians) to assure truth is the basis of every interpretation and every decision.

2.     Be fatalistic about the past and optimistic about the future.  A stoic maintains a vigilant focus on the future, while accepting the past as it is.  Stewing about the past, as Trump continues to do over losing the popular vote, the pitiful turnout at his inauguration, and his continuing penchant for blaming all things on Obama, debilitates him and his capacity to succeed in the future. Trump is also addicted to fame and fortune, which stoics view with contempt as they threaten the attainment of tranquility.  Stoics do not fall into these traps.  Furthermore, stoics maintain that if one pursues a virtuous life, consistent with the constraints of nature, tranquility is assured.  I will add to this stoic discipline the aim of transcendence—particularly in politics—that compels one to rise above partisanship and serve the masters of truth and nature above the pettiness of partisan rancor.  Transcendence requires a sense of selflessness and the dismissal of popular anxieties promoted by pundits and politicians who are more interested in self-aggrandizement than in improving the welfare of their fellow citizens.

3.     Visualize the worst outcomes to allow healthy management of expectations and to understand the circumstances and pathways that enable unwanted outcomes in order to prevent or minimize their realization.  Stoics refer to this discipline as negative visualization. Ask the question, what is the worst that can happen?  Experience, albeit prospectively, all the consequences—physical, financial, emotional, etc.—of a loss.  This discipline allows one to reconsider and recalibrate expectations in a manner that may be more aligned with reality since, as humans, we tend to over-expect our successes and under-estimate weaknesses and threats, not to mention the impact of unknown variables.  Proper negative visualization also paints a picture of those pathways that lead to failure or loss, which allows the stoic to identify early warning indicators and disrupt any advance toward undesirable outcomes.

4.     Attack your own thinking with an opposable mind to understand your vulnerabilities and to anticipate your opponents’ responses.  I am fairly certain this is a discipline that is impossible for Trump to grasp; there is no evidence that he considers his vulnerabilities or looks beyond his first glandular reflex.  Further, his bullying nature virtually assures he has no one near him with the confidence to assist him with an opposable mind, let alone question his thinking.  This is his (unwitting) recipe for disaster as president.  The stoic, on the other hand, can argue all points of view to not only assure her own clear and comprehensive thinking, but to understand the arguments, strategies and tactics that might be waged against her.  This is what I also refer to as whole-minded thinking: employing all parts of the brain in all directions and from all perspectives.

5.     Expend energy and resources on the few things (less than 20%) that matter—the key result areas—that assure success and contribute to a state of invincibility.  Identifying the 20% is accomplished by first identifying those things which qualify as key result areas.  Key result areas are those objectives that, once accomplished, also mitigate other concerns or achieve other objectives; the proverbial “two birds with one stone” actions.  Once you know the key result areas, you must also ask if those involved (a person, organization, company, etc.) respond to intelligence; that is to say, will it or they behave in a responsible manner?  If it/they don’t, you are wasting your time; don’t beat your head against a wall—pursue your objectives through other avenues or organizations.  Although empathy is essential to our humanity, one must also have the courage to discard and isolate those with nefarious or misguided aims.  In my life, I often credit this stoic discipline as a key element in my own success and well-being.  In the Trump era, this means targeting those objectives that are more local and provide measureable impacts on your community (however you define that realm).

6.     Practice solitude and meditate to create a sense of tranquility and solemn determination.  Quiet time is essential to our physical, mental, and emotional well-being.  As the French Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne wrote, “We must reserve a little back-shop, all our own, entirely free, wherein to establish our true liberty and principal retreat and solitude.”[3]  Solitude allows, among other things, the capacity to process the world in the whole minded fashion (suggested in discipline #4, above), providing the conscience and sub-conscience to reconcile the world (and one’s place in it).  The stoic, Seneca (4 BC to 65 AD), viewed meditation and solitude as a daily exercise where one sits quietly and alone to, in effect, de-brief one’s self about one’s day.  What was accomplished? What was lost?  And, most importantly, what was learned?  Whether you meditate in a ritualistic fashion consistent with Eastern religions, or simply take a long walk while thinking deeply about yourself in your world, you must dedicate yourself to some alone-time in order to not only make the best decisions, but to know yourself completely and honestly.

7.     Commit to a duty of service based in humility.  The ultimate aim of stoics—virtue and tranquility—can only be achieved by those who are engaged in their community with the aim of leaving things better than the way they found them. Mahatma Gandhi is credited (after substantial paraphrasing) with the prescription “Be the change you want to see in the world,” which is a clear call to this form of exemplary service.  America’s historical proclamations of self-reliance and self-directed lives provide a fanciful myth, but the reality today is an America (and world) that is much more interdependent than the American frontier romanticized by Frederic Jackson Turner in his The Significance of the Frontier in American History.  This binding of one’s self to one’s community is what Marcus Aurelius described as contributing to “the service and harmony of all.”  Trump’s “America First” treatise completely ignores this stoic discipline and his behaviors are hardly aligned with any sense of humility.  It is, therefore, now more than ever, essential that we each accept our role in service to others, looking for no greater reward than the welfare of our neighbors and the betterment of our communities.

8.     Avoid anger at all costs to drain the power of your adversaries.  Stoic philosophy’s most closely held commitment is to rationality, which further requires that we remain mindful of “what is and what is not in our power.”[4]  What is always in our power—regardless of the causes or effects of any events—is how we react to any particular occurrence or outcome.  Angry reactions almost always have the same effect: to empower the offender at the expense of the offended.  Trump is experiencing this lesson in the hardest way possible.  (I suggest “experiencing” because there is no evidence thus far of learning.)  Lashing out, whether via tweet or verbal bullying is draining his credibility and legitimacy as president.  Watch as bureaucrats, members of Congress, the media, and foreign leaders increasingly dismiss his angry outbursts.  More so than at the beginning of his presidency, he now is ignored and dismissed by his targets both near and far.  His anger has made him increasingly irrelevant.  In effect, he has transferred his power to the targets of his anger much in the same way we do if we react angrily to those who attempt to degrade us.  Dismissing offensive behavior with indifference retains power in the hands of the offended; it takes the weapon out of the offender’s hands reducing them to be strangled by their own insolence.  And, it maintains our processing of such events within the realm of the rational and away from disabling discountenance.

Notwithstanding Trump’s very temporary role as an American president, and his behaviors and decisions that defy his duty to serve our great country, the United States and the world are doing very well if one simply observes the facts.  Employing stoic disciplines can defeat Trump’s behaviors and practices.  We must be diligent, patient, cool-headed, and most of all engaged in our communities, country, and world to assure our triumph over this roguish fool.

[1] Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (New York: HarperCollins, 2017), p.2.
[2] See Bret Stephens, “Only Mass Deportation Can Save America,” The New York Times, June 16, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/16/opinion/only-mass-deportation-can-save-america.html?_r=0.
[3] Montaigne in Anthony Storr, Solitude: a Return to the Self (New York: Ballantine Books, 1988), p.16.
[4]Massimo Pigliucci, How to be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life (New York: Basic Books, 2017), p.174.
By |2017-07-22T13:01:48+00:00June 30th, 2017|Donald Trump, Leadership|0 Comments

The Certainty Trap

In decision making at all levels—personal, business and government—it appears there is one pitfall everyone succumbs to at one time or another: the certainty trap.  Stated simply, the certainty trap occurs when decision makers grant inordinate meaning to apparent ‘knowns’ that are subsequently revealed to have had little or nothing to do with the outcomes produced by the decision.  The effects of the certainty trap on our failures range from marginal opportunity costs to the catastrophic—from a missed business opportunity to waging ill-conceived wars.  The certainty trap yields fatuous decisions, however carefully justified by ‘knowns’.

Although we seldom conduct a post-analysis on our victories (after all it was our brilliance and hard work that produced the triumph!), it also seems logical to assert that the certainty trap is outcome agnostic; whether we are successful or not, the certainty trap may have preceded both our wins and our losses.  The decision itself is dependent on the ‘knowns’ but the outcome may prove to have been quite independent of the same ‘knowns’.  Former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld often jousted with reporters over his seemingly magical matrix of knowns and unknowns, focused somewhat fatalistically on those combinations that included ‘unknown’.  But what if the real problem was not with the unknowns, rather it was with the knowns that, in reality, did not matter (or, in Rumsfeld’s case were not actually ‘knowns’ at all)?  More importantly, how do we avoid the trap of granting inordinate weight to factors that are visible and immediate, but ultimately inconsequential?

The first thing to realize is that the certainty trap is a naturally occurring phenomenon.  We need little if any help to fall into it.  After all, upon what are we to base our decisions if not those things that are known?  Here is where the wisdom born from failure can be critical.  While it is natural to point at visible and tangible factors and data to justify our decisions, and equally unnatural to point at the same data and call it into question, doing so may be extraordinarily valuable if the ‘knowns’ are irrelevant (or worse).  It takes an exceptionally confident and wise person to discount the obvious knowns in favor of the possibilities lurking in the unknowns.  It takes confidence born from intelligence and experience and a wide-open mind to make judgments instead of decisions.

And yet, we can observe many ‘unnatural’ judgments that created enormous successes, while there are many more ‘natural’ decisions that resulted in failures.  Steve Jobs made judgments that resulted in the largest and arguably most culturally influential corporation in the world, while Steve Ballmer made decisions that set the incumbent software giant Microsoft on a glide path to mediocrity.  Tesla and SpaceX’s Eton Musk made judgments about the future of travel on roads and in space, while at the same time General Motor’s former CEO, Rick Wagoner, made well-justified decisions that led to GM’s bankruptcy.  President George H.W. Bush made judgments after the collapse of the Soviet Union that prevented chaos in much of the world while his son, President George W. Bush, made decisions after 9/11 resulting in tragic losses of life and treasure and little, if any, meaningful gains.  The outcomes speak for themselves and point to a new rule to observe: worry as much or more about the knowns as the unknowns.

The mindset of the executive who makes judgments vs. those who make decisions is worth exploring.  All the executives listed above are intelligent and well-intentioned human beings.  They vary in experience levels, but that alone does not assure judgment-making over decision-making.  We must look at the cognitive nature of each executive.  Do they view the world as a zero-sum game where limits define options, or a world awash in possibilities?  Do they see issues as black or white, good or evil, or are they intrigued by the nuanced spaces between?  Do they have the ability to see and argue different sides of an issue—possessed of an opposable mind—or do they easily dismiss other options in favor of their predispositions?  Are they deliberative or impulsive?  Do they surround themselves with people who can replace them, or with those who see them as irreplaceable?  Are they curious, or are they certain? Are the unknowns a source of fear, or a venue of creative opportunity?  These are the questions we should all ask of ourselves and of those we choose as our leaders.  These are the considerations that produce judgments over decisions and protect us all from the certainty trap.

By |2017-05-23T17:32:32+00:00July 31st, 2014|General, Leadership|0 Comments

Six Words to Write on the Wall

Scholars identify crises as periods when outlier economic events (extreme data points) and social and political polarity (absence of a center or consensus) prevail over what had been considered the normative state.  Economic, social, and political order is in peril.  Stated otherwise, weirdness reigns.  As an Eisenhower baby I am old enough to remember a fair amount of tumult, but the outliers and polarity today seems more pronounced and durable.  Someday historians will turn the current noise blaring at us from all directions into something melodic and lyrical, but when you are in the midst of the milieu it sounds more like a kid performing at their first violin recital. We grit our teeth and brace ourselves until the tortuous fraying of the bow ceases.  What does this chorus of noise mean?  What do the various crises emanating from the political, economic, and cultural spheres portend for you and me?  How should we respond to these events?  What should we expect of others and ourselves?  Even more importantly, what does it suggest about how we should conduct our lives vis-à-vis the purposes and aims that define who we are? Is our destiny still even ours?

To assure that our destiny remains in our control we must first embrace the notion that crisis is good.  It is like the fire in the forest that is both devastating in the moment and essential for the future of its eco-system.  Crisis on a systemic level allows a cleansing of the detritus that has built up from years of traditional thinking codified to protect the status quo and, unfortunately, compromise our future.  What once was thought to maintain stability—like a money supply untethered from the gold standard—may mark the next tipping point toward systemic entropy.  Crisis, however, creates new spaces and resources for new actors to create and innovate.  It is like rebooting your computer: the operating system remains intact while the application software is disentangled from the remnants of prior tasks.  That is not to say crises are thoroughly cleansing; some of the rubbish remains, and that which does will fight mightily to do so.  We need look no further than some of the blowhards in politics and media to recognize this.  Yet, to succeed in our particular purposes and aims, we must take what space and opportunities arise and run through newly opened doors toward our future.

Embracing crisis as a liberating force also allows us to learn from past crises so that we might identify words, themes, and modalities we should employ to survive and prosper, or at least find a measure of tranquillity, if not a state of grace.  Reviewing the history of past crises while also surveying the current political, economic, and cultural landscape leads me to suggest there are six words or themes to write on the wall to guide us in answering the question, how should we conduct ourselves today?[1]

  1. Authentic.  Keep it real, and keep it true. During recovery from crises there is not enough slack in the system to reward work that is almost right.  Only the real stuff wins.  Like most people, I appreciate irony, but too often today irony is worn in much the same way as a teenage girl wears eye shadow; more comical than alluring.  Yet when properly considered the object of irony—exposed in relief—reveals authenticity. The question is, what is the fundamental value expressed in its simplest form?  Seek to produce values that are pervasive and durable throughout the system, product, policy, or personal regimen.  Once identified, set them like cornerstones to support everything you do.
  2. Resilient.  Here is a not-so-newsy flash: you, your family, your company, your community, your city, and your country will suffer a blow or blows as we unwind from the current crises in the chaotic and messy climb toward a new more settled state.  Crises, like forest fires, are indiscriminate.  Even if you avoid catastrophic damage, collateral damage is a certainty.  Many herald schemes of sustainability and independence, but they are just part of this larger objective of resilience.  To survive we must have the ability to bounce back.  In our personal lives, this means we have to be mentally and physically fit, and have access to sufficient financial and human resources.  On the human relations aspect, trust others as Machiavelli might: expect them to consider their own interests first—always ahead of yours.  But, have go-to folks that can bolster your efforts in those areas where they are stronger than you.  Take personal responsibility for your lot, however you define it.  When the blow comes take the hit, dust yourself off, and get ready to hit back.  Make yourself a hard target.
  3. Gonzo.  Just when you thought this was going to be a treatise on conservative realism, I invoke the late Hunter S. Thompson.  In shorthand, gonzo means that you should write all the rules down so you know what not to do.  Channel your inner Hunter, er Gonzo.  The vast majority of rules, frameworks, policies, and structures were adopted to protect those in power, not to protect or serve you.  Moreover, in a post-crisis world, they don’t work in your favor even if you were one of their yesteryear authors.  In the ascent from crisis, those who set aside tradition and define their world in their own terms will be profoundly successful and yes, much happier.  When you face the inevitable admonishment “you can’t do that” or “that isn’t allowed,” simply respond: watch me.
  4. Transcendent.  Rise above the rabble.  Don’t be drawn into the muck of ignorance that is so-often the marker of organizations and factions whose survival depends on the condemnation of opposing perspectives.  This is the basis of my objection to organized religion—particularly monotheistic religions—that advocate intolerance as a by-product of their own survival impulse.  The prevailing principle of these groups is, “if you don’t believe as we do you are wrong and will be subjected to our wrath.”  Political parties employ the same thinking.[2]  Be wary of ideologies and theologies that practice judgment and condemnation.  They are debilitating.  Retain your free will.  Read often and deeply; look for character, structure, and meaning.  Pursue knowledge beyond your comfort zone.  What does the artist know or do that might benefit the scientist?  This is the best way to nurture the power of an opposable mind.  An opposable mind is always open to new ideas that create solutions no one else has thought of.
  5. Stealth.  Several years ago I wrote an essay wherein I argued the next frontier—after my father’s frontier of space—was the frontier of anonymity.  It was based on the notion of harnessing the benefits of digital technologies, in particular, networks, to operate in a seamless and borderless manner to master the theoretically endless benefits of globalism.  All of this would be conducted in an anonymous manner where code and avatars replaced our traditional analog identities.  In many respects today, we are headed exactly in that direction as the anonymity of 1s and 0s dominate our commerce and communications.  Aliases have become the norm.  However, there are other aspects of anonymity—of a stealth existence—that have value beyond the ability to tweet your every thought behind an opaque hash tag.  High profiles are dangerous in periods of crisis and in the period of objectivism that follows in America’s historical four-phase life cycle (crisis—objectivism—radicalism—idealism).  Humility and self-restraint are clearly preferable to hubris.  There are many people who enjoy health, wealth, and happiness who never stick their head in front of the camera. Be like them.
  6. Grace.  There are many definitions and interpretations of grace, so let me start by suggesting the grace I write about here is when the proper balance of virtues are combined with other elements and resources to produce something beautiful.  A state of grace then is the modality that produces beauty, whether it is an object, product, service, idea, or writing.  Pierre-Auguste Renoir often argued that the most durable things in the world are those that are beautiful.  Grace is the capacity to bring everything together in such a way that people say wow that is beautiful, or amazing, or just plain cool.  I am suggesting here that grace is when you bring authenticity, resilience, gonzo, transcendence, and stealth together in just the right way to assure your destiny—which is indeed a truly beautiful thing.  Then, you are in a state of grace.

As we emerge from this period of crisis and enter a new period of objectivism, I expect those who seek grace through the careful application of these ‘six words written on the wall’ will retain a handhold on their destiny.  The fate of others will be chosen for them.

[1] The words and themes presented here all have their basis of research and argument found in prior posts at ameritecture.com.  Please peruse the archive for more substantive material on these six ideas including references to reading material.
[2] In my recent reading of memoirs from members of the George W. Bush administration, I have found an overwhelming sense of certitude that appears to have been the proximate cause of what I call sclerotic decision making.
By |2017-05-23T18:00:35+00:00April 24th, 2013|General, Leadership|0 Comments

The Best in Us

It is often said that the worst times bring out the best in us.  As I reflect on 9/11 and the decade that followed, I oscillate between anger, sadness, and disgust.  At times my jaw is clenched, while at others the tears well up.  Then, too often of late, I just hang my head in disbelief.  As an historian it is impossible for me to avoid comparing 9/11 to other moments of crisis in America, to other ‘worst’ times.  The run-up and aftermath of the American Revolution, Civil War, and Great Depression and World War II are obvious candidates for comparison.  What I find is that the significant markers that define the beginnings of these crises are characterized by both grave challenges and collective determination.  Americans come together and address the crisis with a high sense of resolve, responsibility, and sacrifice.  Our character is lean and strong.  During this period of comparison there are many more similarities than differences.  It is in the out years, roughly three years and beyond the initiation of crisis, when more differences are found, and where prospects for the future are defined.

Our initial response to 9/11 was similar to other crises.  Flags were everywhere and while a few people behaved in a manner unbecoming an American, most of us kept our cool and rallied around our leaders with compassion for those who lost loved ones, and a determination to seek justice.  In the out years, however, we lost our composure by compromising two things: our honesty and our humility.  Ideological bullies like Vice President Dick Cheney began by lying about weapons of mass destruction and al-Qaeda in Iraq.  Inside the Beltway of Washington DC they call it politicizing intelligence.  I will call it what it is: lying.  The lies enabled a call to action that has cost us at least two trillion dollars and, across the world, the loss of tens of thousands of lives.  Once our honesty was lost, what little humility remained since we had become the world’s sole remaining superpower after the collapse of the Soviet Union was vanquished by our hubristic response to 9/11.  Once our humility was gone, our national character—our identity—was lost as well. We were all sucked into a charade that has proven catastrophic.  The promises of the Cheney bunch—of cheers, bouquets, and new democracies—were never realized and now we are stuck in a quagmire without a clear exit.  The tally of blood and treasure lost is far from over.

Dishonesty, and moreover, arrogance, appear to be the primary products of the out-years after 9/11.  Now we behave at home the way we have abroad.  Our leaders in Congress swagger about with Cheney-esque anger and certitude.  Ideological bullying has become the norm.  Meanwhile, our president hides in the White House like a prom king who has just realized the student body doesn’t love him so much after all.  What courage he had has been overcome by his naiveté.  No, President Obama, the old white pudgy boys in Congress are not enamored with a young fit black man in the White House.  They want you out and they will do anything possible to bring that about.  It is time for you to fight for our future and forget about a second term.  Use the rest of your term to be the best one-term president ever.  If you do, who knows, you might even have a second term.

As I watched the tears shed by the children remembering their loved ones at Ground Zero on September 11, 2011, I couldn’t help but also wonder about all the tears shed by the children of those who have been killed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Pakistan.  As I watch Wall Street prosper, I wonder why we can’t do the same thing for main streets all over America.  As I watch the middle class rise across Asia, I watch and wonder why we tolerate its decline in the West.  As I watch students across Scandinavia and Asia excel at levels significantly higher than our own kids, I wonder how we expect to remain a superpower.  As I watch our security, health, and environment decline from our dependence on fossil fuels, I wonder why we don’t launch a massive public initiative to produce new fuels and new distribution systems.

Many wonder these days if Karl Marx was right; if capitalism will produce its own demise.  It is an interesting question given our current circumstances.  I conclude, however, that capitalism and democracy are not the problem, character is.  We must regain our sense of honesty and humility to face the many challenges we face.  Once our character is lean and strong again we will have the courage to do what we know is right.  We will not allow those we elected to serve us to continue serving themselves first.  We will, once again, summon the best in us.

By |2017-05-23T19:50:02+00:00September 11th, 2011|American Identity, Leadership|0 Comments

Leading from the Soul Part IV: Moral Purpose

The final element of leading from the soul is moral purpose. There is a terrific book on this issue by consultant Simon Sinek, titled, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action.[1] Sinek argues that while most of us and the organizations we work for can readily articulate what we do and how we do it, all too often there is confusion or even no understanding of why. Why provides the beliefs and convictions that direct the what and how. If the why is missing, everything else is the product of randomness and, even more troubling, its absence provides a vacuum that will be filled by divergent interests and nefarious actors. As Sinek points out, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., had a dream, and he shared it on August 28, 1963 with 250,000 people on the mall in Washington DC. People gathered from all over the United States without having received an invitation by way of Facebook, Twitter, email, or cellphone. The three most prevalent phrases in King’s speech are “I have a dream,” “Let freedom ring,” and “Now is the time.”[2] King left us no doubt what he believed, nor of the urgency of his purpose. Like King, Steve Jobs of Apple also has a why. Jobs’ why, is to place the power of computing in the hands of every individual in the world. Today that might not sound impressive, but when Jobs started his quest in 1976, it was patently absurd; computers were never envisioned for use by anyone unless they were employed by a large corporations that would buy them from a company called International Business Machines. Jobs and his partner Steve Wozniak were determined to change all that, and in so doing they, like King, changed the world.

The search for why may be the single most important and illusive challenge we face in our lives, but it is also a challenge that must not be ignored, however frustrating it may be at times. Why are we here? What is our purpose in life? What gives our life meaning? And, perhaps the most perplexing question, how do we know what we know? We can and must ask ourselves these questions, as well as ask them of others — especially our leaders. I study presidents and foreign policy. The what happened and how it happened are usually self-evident. The why is a much more difficult question. Why did George W. Bush believe there were WMD and al-Qaeda in Iraq when there were not? Why did Bill Clinton wait so long to support action in the Balkans while the evidence of genocide was obvious? Why did Reagan decide he could trust Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of an empire he claimed was evil? Why was Carter compelled to seek peace in the Middle East, or give the Panama Canal back to Panama? I’ll offer you a methodology that works with presidents and can also be applied to your own lives: look for integrity by and between the what, how, and why. If there is a pattern of consistency—if the three are aligned—you probably have identified the why. I can tell you with presidents the public why they offer seldom reconciles with the facts of what and how. There is usually a private why that emanates from what I call their unique cognetic profile, which is somewhat analogous, in this context, to their soul. If our own answers or those of our leaders do not reconcile—if they do not have internal integrity—we must demand of ourselves and our leaders that they do.

To say that these are difficult times is a gross understatement, but there may not be words adequate to describe the challenges that face us, individually or collectively, as citizens or a nation. What we can do, however, is take a step back, take a deep breath, and remind ourselves that solitude is powerful, transcendent courage is essential, and that each of us must find our why and honor our moral purpose. If we do, we will regain our capacity to lead from the soul.

[1] Simon Sinek, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action (New York: Portfolio, 2009).
[2] The text and video of King’s speech is available at http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm.
By |2017-05-23T20:25:07+00:00February 23rd, 2011|Leadership|0 Comments

Leading from the Soul Part III: Transcendent Courage

The next element of leading from the soul is transcendent courage.  Courage is the spine of character; it is the synaptic command and control system for all other virtues.  We are all familiar with courageous acts; the firefighter who rescues the child from the burning building, the soldier who throws himself in the path of danger to save his comrades, or the passengers who uttered “Let’s roll” and gave their own lives to protect other innocent Americans the terrorists intended to kill at their target in Washington DC on 9/11.  There is no question these acts are heroic and worthy of significant praise, even reverence.  Are they born from courage?  Panic?  Desperation?  Are they reflexive or triggered from a deeply wired sense of personal responsibility?  Is courage inherited or learned?  Are courageous people attractive, intelligent, wealthy, or prophetic?  Do they attend church every Sunday?  Do courageous people necessarily perform heroic acts or is courage a state of being that may never be overtly expressed?

The etymology of courage, found in The Oxford English Dictionary shows that the word has been used to describe the “quality of mind,” heart, spirit, disposition and nature of a person which “shows itself in facing danger without fear or shrinking” (emphasis added).  This history of usage indicates a much broader notion of courage, which is revealed by perilous circumstances of life; circumstances that by their very nature are not within the control of the courageous.  9/11 pilot Mohammed Atta, who committed a horrific act when he flew American Airlines flight 11 into the north tower of the World Trade Center, is heralded as courageous in many parts of the world.  Dutiful?  Absolutely.  Brave? Perhaps.  Fearless?  I doubt it.  Courageous?  I don’t think so.  But what if Mohammed Atta had flown his plane safely to an airport and freed the passengers?  What if others who are ordered to act in a manner they know is wrong face their circumstances by acting contrary to those orders?  They are still taking action.  There are still perilous circumstances they do not control.  And, they are doing so, consistent with what I will call their truth: which is the first dimension of transcendent courage as a state of being.

The truth in transcendent courage is based in the simple reality that we know what the right thing is to do; the difficulty comes in listening to and honoring our sense of truth (allowing its transcendence) against the pressures of competing influences.  These influences take many forms and have many origins.  They may be internally generated, like greed; or, emanate from the pressure of peers, family members, superiors, or clergy.  Consequences imposed by these influencers, positive or negative, act to tether or suppress our truth.  A person possessing transcendent courage however, has immediate and undeterred access to their truth.  They do what they believe is right without regard to competing influences.  They are the most innocently (or unapologetically) honest among us.  They live in their truth all day, every day.

The second dimension of transcendent courage is the capacity to subordinate consequence to the importance of action; consequences are inconsequential.  Fears are faced down.  The prospect of immeasurable burden is accepted with grace and dignity. Physical pain, ridicule, even death are accepted as the inevitable partners of a courageous life; one which, above all, honors its truth.  Many arrive here through their faith in God.  Others believe that actions taken consistent with their truth will mitigate the severity of consequence, in time.  I will suggest there is simply no other honorable way to express freedom.  If we hesitate to do what we know is right in the face of consequence, our own chains forever shackle us.  We abdicate our freedom.

The third dimension of transcendent courage is selflessness.  Selflessness enables us to honor our truth and readily accept consequences.  Many people define their lives by their service to others.  They measure their self-worth by the extent to which they make others smarter, healthier, happier, and safer.  Teachers, doctors, clergy, police, firefighters, paramedics, military, and community volunteers come readily to mind.  By their very nature or life choice, people who spend their time serving others have a significantly greater propensity to possess transcendent courage.  Service to others teaches us the intrinsic value of selflessness.  It isolates the influence of adoration and remuneration from consideration.  It gives us the opportunity to embrace our humanity and feel connected to community while enhancing our self-esteem.  Selflessness produces that warm feeling many call peace.  Selflessness is the liberation of the soul from the oppression of our desires.  Think of those who have served you well in your life…who have enriched your life.  Are they profoundly successful, high profile, and wealthy, flamboyant people?  Maybe.  I’ll bet they are quite the contrary; quiet, unassuming, self-assured, and humble.

The fourth dimension of transcendent courage is self-acceptance.  Are you comfortable in your own skin?  Do you like you?  Have you resolved with yourself who you are?  People who have access to transcendent courage accept who they are and live lives bounded by dignity and imbued with grace. They are at peace with themselves, in the present.  Only when self-acceptance has occurred can our consciousness turn to the needs of others; only then are we open to leadership through service … only then is transcendent courage a natural state of being.

The fifth dimension of transcendent courage is the transmission of strength.  I’d like to tell you about Sara.  I met Sara at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas at the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders where she was being treated for an aggressive form of leukemia. I was a volunteer there for several years helping out with everything from restocking the shelves of videos in the infusion room to comforting patients who were having spinal taps to access bone marrow. I also spent a fair amount of time supporting the parents of patients; trying to help them make sense of the cruel hand they had been dealt.

Sara was five when she started her treatment and like most five-year old girls Sara liked everything as long as it was pink, purple or somehow related to Barbie. Sara had pale, crystal-blue eyes and strawberry-blonde hair, always gathered with a satin, clip-on bow. She loved to have her nails painted and preferred patent leather shoes. Soft and shiny was her style, which meant that both silk and fleece could be mixed in the same outfit without offending her aesthetic sensibilities. Sometimes she looked like a kid who had dressed herself while standing in her closet, blindfolded. Everyone who spent just five minutes with Sara loved her, including me. Sara is the most courageous person I have ever known.

During Sara’s three years of horror battling leukemia I never saw her cry out, whine or complain.  I will never forget the last few days before Sara’s death. Sara was the first one to accept what was coming. She helped everyone else through the painful anticipation of losing her. She smiled every moment she was awake. She never expressed concern for herself. She only wanted to make sure her mother, father, and little brother would be okay.  Sara’s legacy is the strength she transmitted to those around her.  Her courageous behavior made anyone who was in contact with her a better and stronger person. This is the fifth and final dimension of transcendent courage. Those who act courageously enhance the lives and behaviors of everyone around them. This is the true evidence of transcendent courage.

By |2017-05-23T20:34:45+00:00February 17th, 2011|Leadership|0 Comments

Leading from the Soul Part II: The Power of Solitude

Leading from the soul can only occur if we practice solitude.  As former Yale professor of literature, William Deresiewicz warned us, today we seem to be intoxicated by “celebrity and connectivity,” where the “great contemporary terror is anonymity.”  However, we know that the act of being alone—of practicing solitude—has produced great work.  In literature solitude gave us Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Jane Austen; and more contemporary talents like Maya Angelou and David Foster Wallace.  In music it gave us a range of brilliance from Mozart, to Coltrane, to Hendrix.  In science solitude found in laboratories and garages gave us street lights, vaccines, and microprocessors.  Some of the greatest thinkers of all time, like Isaac Newton, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and Freidrich Nitzsche never married and lived alone most of their lives.  In leadership, solitude gave us the aforementioned Lincoln, Gandhi, and King.

As Deresiewicz further argues, solitude is “the arena of self-discovery, a voyage of the interior realms.”  Solitude is the path to our soul, where our soul is not some deific gift, but rather the core of our being that draws on both the conscious and subconscious.  Solitude allows us to think deeply in search of threads of thought and method that allow us to make sense of the world before us.  It allows our imagination room to roam.  As wonderful as technology is, it can rob us of solitude.  There is no time for deep reading or deep thinking; no time to argue with ourselves, to hone our capacity for critical thought such that we can know what we know and share it with others in a clear and concise manner.  The digitation of everything has made us mental skaters on thin ice, always trying to move to the next link, or app, or text, or email, before the ice gives way. According to John Freeman in his book The Tyranny of E-Mail, by the time it takes you to read this sentence three hundred million emails have been sent and received.  We are just one ringtone or chime or chirp away from the next distraction.  In this sense we are romantics, always wondering if there is a better place to be than in the present, with ourselves.  In the process our ability to concentrate and think critically, so necessary to the creation of original ideas, is severely compromised.

Now you may say, but what about collaboration?  Or, Facebook caused the recent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt!  And, the Internet is a fantastic tool!  I love the Internet too, but the Internet does not produce original thought and does not solve complex problems.  People do.  The revolution in Tunisia was not caused by Facebook, the precipitating event was the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi, a despondent fruit-and-vegetable peddler whose death moved a nation of oppressed Tunisians to finally raise both their voices and their hands in unity.  The uprising in Cairo, while facilitated by Facebook and Twitter, was based in similar defiance of years of oppression.  Facebook carried the story and allowed people to organize, not unlike the pamphlets distributed by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine that helped foment the American Revolution.  As for collaboration, yes, it can also be very effective, as long as it starts with every participant bringing something to the discussion that is original and adds value.  Too often collaboration is simply a forum for the status quo to receive validation; for old ideas to be given a new wrapper; and for the re-homogenization of that which has already failed.  In too many cases, it becomes a place for people to seek the celebrity that Deresiewicz warned us about; to allow those, who are so disposed, to be a pain in the ass.  So far, the promise of innovation from collaboration by way of the Internet has largely proven to be an empty hope.  The Holy Grail of social networking—yet undiscovered—is how to transform it from its wide and shallow profile to a web of deep integrative exchange.

As British historian Edward Gibbon wrote, “Conversation enriches the understanding, but solitude is the school of genius; and the uniformity of work denotes the hand of a single artist.”  I am not saying that every work must be done by one pair of hands as Gibbons seems to suggest, but I am claiming that each hand must bring its own work.  I also agree with columnist David Brooks who suggested to remain competitive, “America will have to be the crossroads nation where global talent congregates and collaborates.”  But, he also argued, “people are most creative when they collaborate face to face.”  To collaborate effectively, each of us must spend time in solitude.  We must take time for sustained reading of great works, to conduct primary research, and to allow for long periods of reflection, such that our soul has a chance to speak— creating original thoughts that produce new solutions.

By |2017-05-23T20:39:01+00:00February 8th, 2011|Leadership|0 Comments

Leading from the Soul Part I: Introduction

When I think of great leaders I think of people like Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.  They were people whom against all odds and, moreover, against popular opinion, led society to places it would have never gone without them—to places that established new norms and higher expectations.  Their ideas and convictions were asserted thoughtfully and courageously and they never wavered from their purpose: to improve the lot of humanity.  These leaders spent a great deal of their time alone, reading and deliberating.  These leaders took risks that elevated everyone.  These leaders had a humble sense of self and a clear sense of mission.  When the history books are written about the early 21st century, I believe it will be claimed that while we suffered from economic malaise, global warming, terrorist acts, etc., the cause was not a housing or capital markets crisis, or an addiction to fossil fuels, or declining test scores, rising federal deficits, or even a broken healthcare system, it was rather a debilitating scarcity of leadership.  Leaders today show little, if any, of the characteristics of Lincoln, Gandhi, and King.

Affluence has had much to do with this dearth of leadership.  For the last twenty years or so, since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, we frankly have not needed much leadership. If a difficult question remained unanswered, the consequences were few. Prosperity assured enough slack in the system that mistakes could be absorbed with little pain and no devastation. Evolutionary pressures that might have selected for capable leaders were largely absent.  Foreign affairs columnist for The Financial Times, Gideon Rachman, writes that the post-Cold War days of optimism are over, replaced by a new “Age of Anxiety” that portends a “zero-sum future.”[1] The so-called “Great Recession” that started in August 2007, and the turmoil of a global rebalancing of power that calls into serious question the future of America’s superpower status, means that whatever slack existed in the system is now gone.  Roger Altman and Richard Haas outlined the brutal details of American profligacy and declining American power in the journal of Foreign Affairs where they claimed, it was a lack of political will at home, as opposed to imperial overstretch “that threatens American power and security.”[2] The fact is everything has a consequence again, and leadership is essential.

Historians may also conclude that besides affluence, technology—in spite of all of its many benefits—played its own insidious role in the decline of leadership.  They may find that those digital conveniences we have come to love and dare not live without, which have forced upon us an incessant need to be connected, has pushed leadership aside in favor of distraction and trivialities.  Technology has produced a conversation that is fast, short, and shallow.  It has fooled us about friendship; convincing us we are just a click away from adding a new so-called friend.  Research has been Wiki-fied, which has led to a diminished capacity to search, contemplate, hypothesize, test, reconsider, conclude, and start the search again.  In the process we have lost our sense of method.  Debates—once like symphonies—have been reduced to sound bites and video snippets.  Solving complex problems is no longer the goal; increasing “click-throughs” and “going viral” is all that matters.

These future pages of history can, however, be avoided if we take care to reclaim our capacity for solitude, courage, and moral purpose.  This requires that we shift our behaviors to those that produce depth of thought and origination – that we have the discipline to disconnect.  It requires that we become transcendently courageous and that we focus on the ‘why’ of what we do.  It means that we each must become our own Lincoln, Gandhi, or King.  We can begin by leading from our soul and embracing a conscious discipline of self-restraint and introspection, so that we may regain our purpose and our will.  The process starts with practicing solitude so that we may know ourselves; then summon the courage of our convictions; and remain steadfastly committed to our purposes.

[1] Gideon Rachman, Zero Sum Future (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011).
[2] Roger C. Altman and Richard N. Haas, “American Profligacy and American Power,” Foreign Affairs, 89, no. 6 (November-December 2010): pp. 25-34.
By |2017-05-27T18:28:21+00:00January 24th, 2011|Leadership|0 Comments