WHEN COURAGE FAILS
“What you do and what you tolerate in your presence best demonstrates your standards.”
– Admiral Eric Olson, former Commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command
In this section I get a little passionate about what I consider to be social pathologies that tie leader’s hands with invisible handcuffs. Bear with me and fast forward if you do not agree with me!
Is it possible that weakness is being hard wired into our society? Growing up in upstate NY my friends and I had to work hard to earn some free time, which was spent in creative outlets such as building hay forts and doing dangerous boy things. A few times a week we greedily sat in front of a one-hour tv show such as CHIPS, Happy Days or Gilligan’s Island. School grades were not inflated, the food we ate was actually food, and we felt we had the same opportunity as the other kids, whatever color they were. We did not worry about offending people every time we opened our mouths – and we didn’t because most folks had a thick skin anyhow. The population of the planet was half of what it is today.
Those days seems like a mythical past era to our youth today. In 20 short years we have gone from blissful ignorance to a global interconnected community with a hive mentality darting from one fad to another and toppling governments with tweets and Facebook riots. Our young adults are having a tough time finding the time and tools to train their minds to focus on one thing for more than a few moments. The path of least resistance is to become a content junky glued to a digital device of some form playing a game, texting or posting to YouTube. Attention spans now have a half-life. Because we are not required to work as hard to get the things we need or want we are becoming a society that expects a lot for a little.
To make matters worse big business has lost the ability to steward our natural resources and our Government is in collusion with the medical, pharmaceutical, agricultural, insurance and defense industries at a level where sensibility and the common good, especially as it pertains to the environment and preservation of the human race has been lost. This is all happening before our very eyes and the “average person” feels completely helpless. There is a major failure of leadership in our institutions, and it stems from a failure of courage to change these very institutions. Our leaders are weak because they lack the wisdom and intestinal fortitude of the leaders of even 50 years ago, when the likes of JFK had the audacity to put men on the moon – a feat we sadly could not repeat today. Our institutions are weak because they have become hard wired to pander to the weak and avoid risk. This is a leadership black hole threatening to suck us all in. What to do?
I am not a politician, so I guess I don’t have the answers to the social level issues (though I certainly have some ideas!). What I believe is that leaders have lost courage because they never had it to begin with. Courage is predicated on integrity, and integrity is predicated on insight. Insight is developed by “seeing in” which requires time alone…lots of it. If we are too busy to make time alone, for contemplation, meditation, deep thinking and listening to our guts, then we act at a surface level. At a surface level we lack the courage to make the “hard right” decisions that will be unpopular or expose a weakness in the system. We would rather look good than be good.
Authenticity is hard to develop in a culture of surface beauty, pain avoidance and pleasure seeking where situational ethics, moral relativism, double standards and white lies are taught as doctrine and modeled through the actions of our leaders.
Just as we cannot separate our physical self from our mental, emotional, intuitional and spiritual selves, we cannot distance ourselves from pathologies hardwired into culture that penetrate our subconscious and become part of our makeup. These pathologies play themselves out at a personal, team and organizational level, impacting our world-view, decisions and actions in each. Let’s take a look at some of the more common pathologies plaguing our culture and hence the individuals in that culture. These pathologies lead to a failure of courage to do the right thing regardless of what people think about you, say about you, or how the systems will treat you. Theses pathologies have settled into our “Background of Obviousness” and further corrupt our leadership.
Double standards and lack of accountability – Our culture is narcissistic. We hold double standards around many things because we are taught to take care of ourselves at the expense of others and the greater good. Our entire economy is based upon an individual creating or grabbing his or her share, in a desperate attempt to secure a living. Many are led to beg, borrow and steal this livelihood. The norms of behavior are very loose, and personal values around earning a living can get slippery. The litany of scandals where white-collar professionals get exposed as crooks gets longer every day. Norms such as “work smarter, not harder,” “what is mine is mine and to hell with you,” and “ finders’ keepers, losers’ weepers” permeate our culture. We will take full credit for any success, but quickly blame others for our failures. We are quick to judge others but slow to see the log in our own eyes. This pattern keeps our attention off of what matters, obscuring the grim reality that we are responsible for our thoughts and actions, and as a result of the law of cause and effect, ultimately held accountable by the universe as well. Sooner or later we pay at a personal and social level for not seeking authenticity and holding ourselves accountable to a higher standard.
The quick fix – The quick fix is our drug of choice. Instant weight loss with a pill is much desired over actual hard exercise. Pharmaceutical chemicals are dispensed in favor of a simple recommendation to correct the nutritional deficiency that caused disease to begin with. The One Minute Manager is a best seller and Bloggers know your attention span is limited to about 7 seconds so offer 5 tips instead of substance. The national news media is an endless stream of quick negative energy fixes that keep pop culture mesmerized with drama. Real leaders do not watch news, or much TV at all for that matter. I am not trying to pretend to be above the fray here – but I can attest to how the quality of life of my family and I improved dramatically after removing our tv 8 years ago. Those of you who have stuck with the “news blackout” program know exactly what I am talking about!
Upwardly mobile, at all costs – We have an unhealthy obsession with upward mobility. There is nothing wrong with wanting to grow professionally. However in our corporate and bureaucratic institutions this means moving up the ladder of responsibility regardless of whether or not one is ready for the expanded scope and accountability that accompanies the position. The resume has replaced character in the hiring process until one’s character exposes the resume for the worthless piece of paper that it has become. Resume padding and lying about experience has become standard. There are even services that will help people craft great stories around simple jobs to make them seem like elaborate and hard to replicate skills and accomplishments.
The same can be said of performance grading. In the Navy the writing of a “ fitness report” (an annual report card of performance) has become a fine art of deception. To the untrained eye, everyone is a rock star in the Navy if you read these reports. The nuanced selection of words hides abysmal character failures in a glow of bullshit. The institution knows how to ferret out some true performers by looking for some code words embedded in the writing, as if in a secret society with an elaborate code system to obscure truth from the masses. The words “proven leader, recommend promotion” are code for not much of a leader, don’t trust him. Being ranked one out of one is better than being ranked 3 out of 20. Grades in high schools and colleges are the same. When I went to Colgate University I slaved to get a 2.8 GPA. Today I routinely see resumes with GPA’s higher than 4.0. How does that even happen? It appears as though grading at all levels in our society has been attended to where everybody is a rock star. Can it be true? I don’t think so…
Greed is good, if in the common good – I hit on this in the lead-in to this section. Greed at the corporate and government level is out of control. When is enough, enough? The greed that I am speaking of can be overt, such as the corruption and backroom dealings rampant in our corporate state political and bureaucratic leaders, or it can be more subtle, built into the very system we all participate in. We all are susceptible to it because it is part of the capitalistic contract of our modern corporate state, which rightly rewards human ingenuity and hard work but allows this ingenuity and hard work to play out on an unethical plane with many stakeholders ignored or at out injured in the process. The system is not balanced or integrally informed.
For instance, the structure of our capital markets drives many companies to be launched with the stated purpose of the founders to “go public” and cash out. What then? Well the company then is managed for public rather than private greed (ever increasing stock value thus growth of your portfolio so you can get richer for your investment in this public company). The new short term quarterly earnings becomes the focus and lack of long term (greater than 5 years) planning leads to little public good beyond the profit motive. At a macro-economic level greed is played out in the form of the impossible and neurotic drive for continued economic growth, as if anything could grow indefinitely. We try to defy nature with our rational minds, ignoring our intuition. Intuition tells us that all things must go through cycles of birth, growth, decline, death and maybe re-birth. This includes all biological life forms and can be related to man-made forms that are conceived, created, marketed, consumed and discarded. Corporate forms are conceived, created, grow, decline and often die or transform into a new organizational form as well. Nothing lasts forever, so why should we assume that an economy will grow forever? Shouldn’t we be seeking to balance growth with declines and transform from within as the economy reaches mature stages?
A more egregious example of our lack of wisdom in economic matters is our linear thinking yet another form of greed. Wise cultures would leave their campground in a better state than when they arrived. Would it not make sense to treat the Earth as our campground? Imagine the next 1,000 year period on the Earth as we have lived for the past 100 – where we extract natural resources, produce goods, consume those goods, then discard the garbage in a dump. Well intentioned recycling efforts are overwhelmed by the massive junk piling up and there are garbage heaps the size of Texas in both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Marine animals are choking on our garbage daily, and we are only 100 years into our “modern industrial age.” How long can it go on? Certainly not indefinitely as many estimates indicate that we have already tapped 40% of the Earth’s natural resources and the global corporate-states are rushing to lay claim to what remains. We are racing to the end of is what it looks like, with no courage in our global leaders to state and confront the obvious cliff we are racing toward. Everyone is hoping for a Hail Mary techno-breakthrough to save the day – after all isn’t that how it happens in the movies?
Courageous leaders need to be leading the world toward solutions to the looming existential threat of the destruction of the world’s natural resources, which provide life and sustenance for the world’s growing population. The fact that our major industries, tied to our government with golden handcuffs, make decisions solely for profit and not for a blend of profit and protection of the common welfare is disturbing. Natives of all continents know that the Earth is a living organism and that we are all interconnected. The spirit that runs through all things runs through Mother Earth and all of her children. The human was supposed to be the steward of this amazing resource and gift, not the rapist. Greed can only be tackled head on one person at a time, it can’t be regulated. How do we tackle greed? Through cultivating authenticity! Authenticity leads to respect for ourselves as well as all living beings. When we commit to self-mastery and service, we take our eyes off of ourselves and put them on others. We develop contentment and an abundance mentality. We do not need to hoard, or take what is not ours. We learn to nurture our natural resources and ensure that we leave our places better off than when we arrived. This authenticity must be then injected into our institutions one leader at a time. Then institutional greed can be addressed and turned into stewardship.
Feel good philanthropy – philanthropy has become an outlet for people to feel less miserable about their behavior. Certainly there is good work going on in this industry, but it has become an industry no less and it is amazing how much good intentioned money goes to complete waste with greedy and unscrupulous philanthropic organizations. Most philanthropic organizations start with good intentions, but as they grow in size they too becomes susceptible to the greed of growth and become all about raising money. Only 3% of the proceeds are legally required to be sent back out for the charitable cause. That is an enormous amount of effort going into a tax free effort to extract money from corporations and individuals to keep an army of non-profit
workers employed who feel good about their jobs. I love the rating services that tell us how much of a non-profits money goes back to the cause. The Red Cross’ sterling reputation was tarnished forever after 9/11 by pulling on the heartstrings of the nation to raise money that went to operations and raising more money and never made it to the families of those affected by the tragedy. Though I think the YMCA has provided a valuable service for many over the years, is it fair that they get to be the largest fitness company in the country as a tax exempt non-profit while all other fitness companies must pay their share of taxes and rely on earnings rather than donations to survive? Where is the logic in that? What about obvious tax havens posing as religious non- profits? This whole industry exists as the result of an insanely complex tax code that has spurned entire industries due to its complexity – to wit the public accounting, legal tax consulting, tax preparation and the philanthropic non-profit industries. These industries and their good intentioned work forces exist simply to serve this awkward system of extracting resources from the private sector to fund a public sector with a voracious appetite and little self-control.
Herd mentality – organizations today operate with a herd mentality. Outliers with new ideas are seldom tolerated. Leaders solicit input from every quarter before making a decision. Polling and surveys ensure that the common good becomes policy. The problem is that there is a reason it is a “common” good – that is because it is common. Why not seek uncommon? Why not seek to be different, better, new and inspirationally challenging. Why not shoot for the moon, instead of staying on the landing pad to avoid risk?
Authentic leaders are uncommon and seek uncommon teams and individuals in their organizations. With authentic leaders, courage becomes the fuel and integrity the engine of action as we develop personally and professionally in an upward spiral of discovery, adventure, challenge and service for the good of all stakeholders. This is the new social contract, that of integral integrity as the “I” of an authentic leader inspires the “I and We” of the individuals in their organizations, enabling the collective “we” to ensure that the “It” is aligned and part of the solution rather than the source of the problem
Phew – off my rant about the failure of courage and its disastrous effect on our social contract, and onto the much more positive business of developing as authentic leaders!