The Intersection of Character and Power
Recently, I ran across a quote online somewhere, attributed to Abraham Lincoln. It went:
“Nearly everyone can deal with adversity, but if you really want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
Looking back on our not-quite five-month experiment with new national “leadership,” the quote’s uncanny timelessness and dead-balls-on accuracy hit me like a thunderbolt. The nexus of leadership and power is usually top of mind with me, anyway. Not surprisingly, it comes up more than once in my first novel, West of Tomorrow.
Clay Conover, a re-careered Marine officer turned corporate trainer collides with a long-postponed midlife crisis when his company partners him with a rising star pirated from another company. Sheera Prasad is young, hungry and ambitious and for reasons he can’t quite put his fingers on, Clay has misgivings about her. But in Sheera’s case, familiarity does not breed contempt. In short order, Sheera wins Clay’s confidence, trust—and much more.
Near the midpoint of the story, Clay has a conversation with Sheera, concerning the behaviors of Jonas Stevens, their company’s COO. (Coincidentally, the man who hired her.) After observing Stevens’ public and unkind treatment of their local bosses’ executive assistant, they discuss it on their drive to dinner, after hours.
West of Tomorrow-An excerpt
“Nothing says as much about our values as our habitual treatment of people who have no choice but to take whatever we dish out.”
“I agree we should treat each other cordially,” (Sheera replied,) “But sometimes we’re preoccupied or in a bad mood.”
“That’s why I said habitual. Gentility is a habit.”
“And that matters to you, doesn’t it?”
“It does…for both practical and philosophical reasons. Go straight under the freeway and on through the Chapman intersection,” Clay prompted. “We make so much of executive leadership in business and its role in success. But I believe great followership has won the day more often than great leadership. And only a lightweight confuses rudeness with discipline…or strength.”
Sheera flicked her eyes quickly at Clay, then back to the traffic. “The Marine officer coming out? I’ll bet that’s what Alistair would say.”
“He might. But he’d be only partially correct. Manners are mostly a matter of upbringing and my mother and grandfather took care of that. But the Corps definitely teaches respect for subordinates…and humility, if we’re paying attention. In that respect, Alistair would be right…”
Sheera drove on in silence for a moment. “What you said about subordinates reminds me of something I’ve been meaning to ask you since our conversation our first day.”
“You remember when you were laying out your thoughts on discipline in Vietnam…and Alistair came in and said you were all about the guys in muddy boots?”
“Vaguely,” Clay replied.
“When I asked you about it later, you said something about knowing what matters and what doesn’t,” Sheera continued. “How do you know? I mean it’s pretty important to be right in combat, isn’t it?”
“It is,” Clay agreed. “But it’s mostly about the behavioral habits you’ve built up beforehand…and trust. There are no perfect solutions for all cases, but the habits built up in training usually pull us through when the shit hits the fan.”
“And no one has ever let you down?” Sheera glanced sideways.
“Memorably…and more than once.” The Block at Orange came into view. “Turn right here,” Clay prompted.
“And then what? You just say ‘oh well’ and try again?”
“Take this left and pick any open space this side of where they have valet parking roped off.”
Sheera picked a spot, killed the engine. She looked over at Clay. His eyes were distant, almost melancholy. “Are you going to answer my question?”
“Sorry. I was just thinking about something my first company commander told me. He said, ‘…never make it too hard for your people to do the right thing. If you do, they won’t.’” He shrugged. “Aphorisms are often overworked, but this one helped me more than once. Train ‘em right and they’ll get it right, most of the time. When they screw up, it’s usually time to sort out where communications broke down and do some coaching.’
Sheera smiled. “I can see that working for you, maybe, but not everyone has your charisma.”
Clay looked up a moment then dropped his eyes to meet hers. “It’s not charisma. The difference between tolerable uncertainty and paralysis is consistency…which in turn is often the difference between success and failure.”
The Case for a Tradition of Service in Governance
Many who’ve been called to lead may recognize a kindred spirit in Clay. He knows what many seem not to have picked up, these days. Leadership in any capacity is not about prerogatives…it is about the iron necessities of responsibility, accountability and service. There may be perks associated with it, but if that’s the reason you want to be a leader, you have no legitimate home in governance.
Part of the reason our government in general enjoys so little respect is because many of our leaders seem to have lost the fundamental understanding that governance is not about them, or what’s in it for them. Donald Trump succeeded in making this a major point in his campaign. But instead of draining the swamp, he proceeded to restock it with more Wall Street crony capitalists and influence peddlers.
Whether we’re talking about government, business or the local homeowners’ association, we as citizens must always be alert for evidence of hidden agendas in those seeking power. Most who seek power will come with personal reasons for wanting it. But some reasons are more tolerable than others, and the higher the office the less tolerant of hidden agendas we should be.
There is no fool-proof way to avoid them, of course. But most men and women inclined to serve the best interests of their constituents (however imperfectly) will have a record of service before seeking the highest office in the land. I should hasten to add, that political, military or civil service does not provide those who have so served with special wisdom, necessarily or even perfect intentions. It does, however, tend to weed out those who for whatever reason, seem to lack the stewardship gene. It culls out some of the worst self-servers. (Note I said some). We can never relax our vigilance.
Careful What You Wish For
When things aren’t going well, there’s a temptation to say, “when in doubt, throw them all out.” But in common with most attempts to clothe wisdom in wit, the temptation to clean house needs to be tempered with an understanding of its limitations. It’s a seductive notion, bringing in an outsider to fix problems we imagine insider are too close to see, never mind remedy.
But fresh perspective unbalanced by experience can be an unmitigated disaster. Nothing illustrates this with greater clarity than the sophomoric efforts of our current president. Mr. Trump simply hasn’t been exposed to even the rudimentary considerations that go into international geopolitics or macroeconomics. His entire life has been viewed through the lens of what’s good for Donald. Why, then, would any of us be surprised when he was unable to abandon that model after seventy years?
The complexities of stewardship of the most powerful nation on Earth are simply beyond his experience level. And he demonstrates no interest in learning. His public pronouncements remain hopelessly simplistic. If it cannot be expressed in 140 characters, he’s out.
When coupled with his life-long, demonstrated propensity for self-aggrandizement, Mr. Trump cannot be relied upon to be a steward of the public trust. He is, as his opponent Hillary Clinton noted during the campaign, constitutionally unsuited to responsible governance.
Where from Here?
The testimony of Mr. Comey, today, seems likely to make clear Mr. Trump’s judgement is equally unfortunate, even for his own survival. That remains to be seen, but either way, Republicans who have heretofore kept silent must find their better voices and help remove him from office.
Failing that, it is pivotally important that Democrats in Congress and the people generally resist at every turn the President’s worst instincts, beginning immediately and ending only when Mr. Trump is again a civilian with no say in governance. It is our country. We made this mess, we must clean it up.