#59 Three Perspectives

This has been an emotionally exhausting week. It has also been a defining one. One of those weeks that crystallizes very neatly many of the points concerning leadership, perception, and the arbitrary nature of human being interaction that I have tried to make at other times throughout the blog.

I received two different emails this week. They are completely opposite in tone and tenor, and yet both are incredibly important.

On Wednesday I received the first from a person who stated that in their opinion I was a complete leadership failure and that I (and others) were responsible for the rape and murders of the Al Janabis, and the death of three members of my platoon.

To be honest, I have always had an awareness that sentiments such as these existed, but to see the words on the page, to have someone finally say out loud what others have thought, to finally be confronted with the 'elephant in the room' was both relieving and frightening. There it was, the accusation that follows me around like a ghost everywhere I go: Fenlason failed and people died.

On Thursday, someone who I served with during that time sent me an email that contained the following: "I think that your leadership has really shaped who I am. I still talk about lessons I learned from you and try to impress them on my Soldiers. I only wish that I could understand how ahead of your time your guidance was. I consider you a friend."

That note came out of the blue and was completely unexpected. No member of 1st platoon from that period has ever reached out to me before. Coming on the heels of the one the night before, I was extremely grateful

As I have said before, I do not expect, nor do I want, any reader of this blog to jump to my defense or to attack either of these people. They have an absolute right to their opinions and their convictions. While I obviously disagree with the former and am grateful for the latter, the important part is that they represent both sides of the equation and raise interesting questions of perspective and perception. Neither of these folks are bad or evil people, they are simply trying to understand and come to grips with that time, much the same way I am. In fact, I have offered to continue a dialogue with both of them. I have no intention of trying to change any one's mind about me. What I am offering is another point of view - mine - to add to their understanding. Whether they choose to accept or reject my opinion is on them. My responsibility is to provide my recollections, my intentions, and my point of view. It might only serve to reaffirm their existing beliefs, or it might add information that changes something they previously believed. I cannot control that. However, I do feel that I have a responsibility to try my best to help them gain insight and understanding by offering my perceptions, my decisions, and my observations. That I feel is something that I have a moral obligation to do. Nobody will learn anything from this if we do not respectfully admit that each person is entitled to their own opinion and that it is only inside of that context will any moral or leadership lessons be learned.

Here then is the question: Is it possible that both of them are correct? If you look at the incident from one point of view, namely that I was in charge and horrible things happened and therefore I am responsible for the failure, then sure. But what of the other point of view? How do you measure that? A former Soldier of mine who now leads troops of his own, found leadership traits and behaviors that he respects, emulates, and has adapted to his own style.

If you start with the first reaction (you failed), then the second might seem naive and the continuation of failed leadership onto the next generation. If you start with the second reaction (you are good leader), then the first seems capricious and mean spirited. In a black and white world, get ready to cast your vote. Fenlason failed to lead, Fenlason is a good leader who was ahead of his time. Check box A or B.

The A or B scenario is why I keep returning to the idea that we must develop leaders who start with a very strong understanding of who they are and what they stand for. It is the only way to live with both sides of the equation. It would be too easy to jump up and scream at the person who thinks I failed and simply say you don't know what you're talking about. It would also be too easy to simply wrap myself up in the warm words sent by a former colleague. For my own health, to run from one side to the other would be a dangerous and futile game. I have to become comfortable with the idea that some people will always hold me responsible for the crimes that were committed and the death of 3 American Soldiers. I also have to become comfortable that there will be others who see value in the manner and method with which I led that platoon despite the atrocities and losses. I cannot tilt at the windmills on either side too strongly. I would lose myself running back and forth between the two. Without a sense of who I am, what I stand for, and the courage of my convictions I will either be crushed by the emotional weight of the consequences of failure, or become blissfully deluded that everyone sees the merit in the choices I made. I will not allow either to happen.

A few months back, a friend of mine brought up that in many of my posts I keep mentioning the word perception. That perception in many cases is stronger than reality because it is yours. It is how your brain interprets what you see and forms your understanding of your environment. It is the most personal thing you have, and because of that, it equals your truth. Not the truth, your truth. I very much agree with that statement but want to emphasize the idea that the truth is yours. This means that everyone has a different view of true. That implies that there is no absolute truth. There is no black and white. There are only shades of grey.

The Army does not recognize this in it's leader development programs. By offering nothing more than 7 Values and saying: "Here they are. Absorb them and live with them. Either you get them or you don't." By doing this, the institution is creating the black and white argument. A choice between A or B. And then situations like the one I faced come up and for the first time a young leader is forced to recognize that a third option really does exist. Grey is a color, and in fact, is the most prevalent one on the morality and values color wheel. For the institution to not recognize and study that does a disservice to all who would lead others. Especially if that leadership includes asking them to do things that might cost them their lives, or the lives of those they lead.

I have opened the correspondence with the person who believes I failed because I do not believe they are malintentioned. In fact, my belief is that they are struggling to come to their own understanding of the events and to come grips with what happened, why, and to be able to proceed with their life. I choose to trust their motives. There is inherent risk is this for me, but it allows me to gain understanding of how other people view the decisions I made. To find a closer view of the truth. Realizing that I will never gain complete understanding, I will at least gain a more complete one. The same can be said for the person who found something to respect in what I did. Their perceptions and understanding will also help move me one step closer to a better understanding. I am grateful for both of them because we do not live in a simple black and white world. Without being pushed, prodded and forced to study ourselves and our version of true, we will never grow.

Finally, a third person weighed in this week. Their perception is wholly different. They bought the book before they ever knew me and now have questions and thoughts about it, but worry that it will change the nature of our current relationship. Balancing what they read against what they see is challenging. Different parts of the book's representation of me and their interpretation of me keep bouncing into one another. Which is true? The book? Me? Maybe both?

Three perspectives. All valid. All fair. All personal. All true.

There are reasons I write each week. First, it is cathartic and helps me come to grips with the vagaries of leading human beings. Second, for those who read it, it is my contribution to leader development. As a nation at war, with young people being given extraordinary responsibility, I feel very strongly that we owe them a character development program that recognizes 'grey', and forces them to gain insight into themselves and their character. Without it, I am afraid that many more people will find themselves in situations such as mine. As the Army and the most public representation of America and her values, we owe them much more than that.

The offer to speak about this, to write about this, and to share my interpretations of the time and the circumstances remains open to all. If we do not study ourselves in times of tragedy, loss, and confusion we will never grow. Not as people. Not as the Army, and not as Americans.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.


  1. A Civilian childhood friend and follower of the blog who I have not seen in over 30 years wrote the follwoing:

    "Jeff...As you already know, I do not read your blog from a military perspective. You invited me, a childhood friend to read it and I do so because from the first words I read I knew there was much to be learned in your writings. This last entry was difficult to read. It speaks of human nature and one's ability to deal with traumatic events and the grieving process itself. As humans we all seem to need to try to make sense out of the unimaginable. To find order in chaos so that we can move forward. This human quality can be applied in all kinds of situations. I certainly see that happening here. Now add the military element and it becomes more poignant and necessary for those struggling to find a way through this process. As I have expressed to you before...I think the word ''intent'' is integral here. The first email you received is, in my opinion a person who is stuck in the process of grieving. They blame and hold others accountable because they can't yet move forward. Having a name or a face to hold accountable, to focus all their feelings and frustrations on is easier than continuing to work through it. So many people get stuck in this place and sadly never get the benefit of peace within by continuing along the road to understanding. Think of people's responses in regards to a drunk driving death, a suicide or a murder. Any sudden, unfathomable, shocking, unnecessary tragedy.The very human responses run the entire spectrum of grief. Whole families can be torn asunder because they are on different stages of grief and shock. All will get angry , all will be in shock, all will question why and seek answers. Some however, will remain in that stage and sadly stay locked there. Others will complete the process and although nothing changes the terrible tragedy and loss they feel..they can come to a place where can they move forward. Find peace enough within themselves to continue to live, carrying the pain and loss with them always..but not crippled by it. Think of the families that go to prisons and meet the murderers of their loved ones. They are driven to do this to try to understand and to let go of the anger and grief that is crippling them. The gift is not to the convict but to themselves. They are moving through the process and it is powerful and terrifying. Your intention to continue dialogue with those who point blame your way is a gift to yourself and them, its part of the process. They will learn who you are, how you feel. What your intentions were and are. You will humanize the people they focus their pain on and in the end...it will help them move forward. I repect you for doing so..it is a gift to the human spirit. It will also allow you to release your thoughts and feelings...therefore freeing you as well. The simple fact of the matter is that on that day..in that place..for far more reasons than anyone will ever understand..those men made a choice. they in the end are solely responsible and the rest of us are left to wonder why. To try to find reasons and to process the shock, anger and pain that is left in the wake of that choice. I respect you for keeping the dialogue open, as difficult as it is. So that healing and understanding can happen for so many. This is a loss like so many others in that it is sudden, shocking and unacceptable. The loss of that family as well as the loss of those men ..to their families and friends. All involved and affected by this will go through the process but not all will travel the same path or come to the same conclusions. The reasons for that are as human and elusive as the reasons why this happened."

    Thank you Widget for your thoughts.

  2. great post as usual Jeff....oh how I wish this discussion was not in a vacuum....but I already beat that horse in my last post....on this post...your comments about "shades of grey" and the Army leader development process is spot on....my "Competency vs character? It Must be both" article in the Nov/Dec 2009 Military Review attempts to address this issue.....

    I think it is important to not look at this only through your own lens also and those that send you their thoughts....their were many other people in leadership positions, both above you and below you that were "players" in your unit....before you got there and while you were there....Leadership is any organization is a "system"....seniors, peers, subordinates, referent power, expert power, etc etc....

    great work!...thanks....Joe D

  3. I truly hope the individual (that stated that you and all of the others were leadership failures and responsible for everything that happened) is self-actualized enough to step out of their own stove-pipe and take a look from the perspective of others. I truly hope that the person is an individual that has been there and seen that and that they simply did not read the book and form a conclusion based on the words of the author. As an Army civilian and an Army spouse I dare not even fathom some of the situations being faced by our Soldiers in today’s operating environment and can only hope that the Army listens to and learns from the experiences of Soldiers like you; regardless if leadership is considered heroic or lacking.

  4. Gina -
    I truly believe that that is exactly why the individual made contact with me. I do not believe they have a malicious intent. Just like many others who lived through and experienced that time, it can be difficult to come to grips with. As you know, the blog also provides me with the opportunity to work through my own thoughts about it, and I see this as a fair exchange among respectful people that acknowledges the complexity and difficulty of those events.

    Thanks so much for the reply. I hope to hear from you again soon.