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

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