#68 Alone with Yourself

One of the themes that I have talked about a lot on these pages is that anyone who would call themselves, or be termed, a leader had better have a solid understanding of who they are, and what they value before they accept the leadership position or role. They will need to posses a sense of their own history, who and what formed them, and the possible impacts of that formation on how they choose to lead others. In essence, what are their priorities and what will they stand for? These things cannot be dictated to you, they must be discovered through self study and contemplation. Without conceit, ego, or mindless self affirmation, we must all be willing and able to look squarely at ourselves and determine who we are. As I used to tell new Soldiers when I was a Drill Sergeant, at the end of the day, all you have is your name. What do you want it to stand for?

There must also be an awareness that there will be others who vehemently oppose your ideas, values, thoughts and priorities who will have a different set of values and understandings than you. This is OK. You cannot surround yourself will only like-minded people. By definition, doing so is entropic and eventually leads to self-delusion and implosion. There must be the constant friction of two or more ideas or ideologies crashing against each other for growth to occur. Otherwise we all will come to believe our own bullshit.

[As an aside, the paragraph above is why I do not worry about the current state of political affairs in Washington. It should be that way. Every time that one side or the other has become too powerful and able to drown out the voice of the opposition, the institution and the country has failed. Our current political system requires that those with differing views scream at the top of their lungs. It may be distasteful at times, but it is far better than silent supplication to only one thought process.]

In light of this, please check out the link below:


I found this on Don Vandergriff's blog site yesterday (
http://www.donvandergriff.com/), and there is a lot to be learned from Professor Deresiewicz's thoughts. Importantly, he gave these remarks to a class of West Point Cadets in October 2009.

The thrust of Professor Deresiewicz's speech is that we live in a world where we reward mediocrity and 'hoop jumping' rather than the development of one's own thoughts and ideas. That the very way we are conditioning young people to be successful in the world prizes a 'Go along to get along' mentality and that truly creative and introspective thinkers often do not reach the top of the leadership ladder. His call for introspection and the formation of one's own considered point of view struck a chord with me.

I write for a various reasons. First, it satisfies my need for independent time and space to think about my world, construct my thoughts, and then see if I can articulate them to others. In effect, it is a Internet based conversation with a close friend. Like everyone else, I live in a busy world of competing demands that can become overwhelmed at times with outside noise. I must make time to think and contemplate. Many weeks, I am forming a lot of my ideas that end up here in somewhat real time. I may have an idea that has been scratching at my brain, but rarely are the thoughts fully formed. Writing allows me to explore them a little bit more deeply. Secondly, it is personally cathartic. I have made no apologies that my experiences in Iraq have changed me and that some of those changes have been painful. When my professional life and value was questioned and my known universe shifted, it was very hard. Writing helps me heal. While some may find that distasteful, or a sign of weakness, especially in men, others recognize that expression of my emotions and struggles for understanding on these pages have become part of the recovery process. Finally, I write to inform others. Not from a teacher / student perspective, but rather from an individual one. I do not, and cannot, determine anyone else's answers or solutions for them, but I can advise them that they should spend some time considering them for themselves. Someday they will need them. And, possibly more importantly, their subordinates deserve them. Your subordinates deserve to know that their leader really knows what their value system is. Really knows why they do what they do. Has a real consideration for what's at stake. Those things cannot be easily come by. When something in your life fundamentally changes your perspective about your world, it might be helpful to have already spent some time alone figuring out your values system, your strengths, weaknesses and how you work. As part of that, I forward my thoughts and opinions here and hope they stimulate the reader to start considering their own point of view. Mine are not necessarily better or worse than anyone else's, but they are mine. What are yours?

Consider the following from the end of Professor Deresiewicz's speech:

" You’ve probably heard about the hazing scandal at the U.S. naval base in Bahrain that was all over the news recently. Terrible, abusive stuff that involved an entire unit and was orchestrated, allegedly, by the head of the unit, a senior noncommissioned officer. What are you going to do if you’re confronted with a situation like that going on in your unit? Will you have the courage to do what’s right? Will you even know what the right thing is? It’s easy to read a code of conduct, not so easy to put it into practice, especially if you risk losing the loyalty of the people serving under you, or the trust of your peer officers, or the approval of your superiors. What if you’re not the commanding officer, but you see your superiors condoning something you think is wrong?

How will you find the strength and wisdom to challenge an unwise order or question a wrongheaded policy? What will you do the first time you have to write a letter to the mother of a slain soldier? How will you find words of comfort that are more than just empty formulas?

These are truly formidable dilemmas, more so than most other people will ever have to face in their lives, let alone when they’re 23. The time to start preparing yourself for them is now. And the way to do it is by thinking through these issues for yourself—morality, mortality, honor—so you will have the strength to deal with them when they arise. Waiting until you have to confront them in practice would be like waiting for your first firefight to learn how to shoot your weapon. Once the situation is upon you, it’s too late. You have to be prepared in advance. You need to know, already, who you are and what you believe: not what the Army believes, not what your peers believe (that may be exactly the problem), but what you believe.

How can you know that unless you’ve taken counsel with yourself in solitude? I started by noting that solitude and leadership would seem to be contradictory things. But it seems to me that solitude is the very essence of leadership. The position of the leader is ultimately an intensely solitary, even intensely lonely one. However many people you may consult, you are the one who has to make the hard decisions. And at such moments, all you really have is yourself."

There is much more to the speech than that paragraph, and I would ask that readers very seriously take a moment to consider Professor Deresiewicz's words.

Earlier this week, one of my readers sent me a document that he thought I might be interested in, as it follows very nicely with other writings concerning Boyd and the OODA loop. I was very pleased to receive it. This particular person has become a mentor in some ways even though I have never worked for or with him, and our personal interaction occurred over a very short period of time a few years back. When I sent him a thank you note for the document, I asked him for his opinion on the blog. He was kind enough to write me back last evening. While we agree on many points, we also disagree on others. The absolute key to the relationship isn't either of those. The key is that we have the relationship that allows for those. This particular mentor is a man of a separate breed not often found in today's world. He is a thinker. He has deeply considered his profession, it's requirements and it's demands. He has dedicated himself to ensuring that those beneath him do the same. While he does not demand it of me, he challenges me to continue to look for it. He strikes me as a man who possesses the capability to stand alone, comfortable in his own skin, simply because he has already done the things that the Professor suggests.

To return to Professor D's words, I was particularly struck by the notion that waiting to consider your moral and ethical decision making process until you need it is akin to learning to fire your rifle during your first firefight - it's way too late by then. You need to know how to do it when you arrive on the battlefield. As my mentor pointed out to me in his email, if you are waiting for, or counting on the institution to provide your character for you, then you will fail. To truly develop, and to earn the privilege of being considered a leader, you have to spend some time with yourself, figuring out who you are. If the journey is worth taking, you'll probably come to the conclusion that you have just started on a lifelong pursuit that will not ever be complete.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.

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