Power: The True Test of Character

The Nexus 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 six-month experiment with new “leadership” in the White House, the quote’s uncanny timelessness and accuracy hit hard, inspiring this post.  It reminded me of a snippet in my first novel, West of Tomorrow

As the story goes, a re-careered Marine officer (Clay Conover) finds himself confronting a long-postponed midlife crisis when his company hires a rising star pirated from another company to work with him. Sheera Prasad is young, hungry and ambitious and for reasons Clay can’t quite put his fingers on, he 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 novel, Clay and Sheera discuss Jonas Stevens, their company’s COO. After observing Stevens’ public and unkind treatment of their executive assistant, Clay has a lot to say, on their way to dinner after work.

    “Nothing says as much about our values as our habitual treatment of people who have no choice but to take whatever we dish out.” (Clay pointed 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 the first day at CSG.”

     “What conversation?”

     “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 and 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.”

Leadership, Power and Ulterior Motives

Many experienced leaders will recognize a kindred spirit in Clay. Leadership as he defines it is not about prerogatives. It is about responsibility, accountability and service. To Clay, perks, (if any), are tangential. If that’s why you want to be a leader, in Clay’s mind, you aren’t one.

Is this the best we can do?

If asked, he would say our government enjoys so little respect, today because too many of our leaders have lost the sensing that governance is not about them or their well-heeled contributors. During the campaign, Donald Trump paid lip service to the sinking feeling we all had that our government has (on balance) abandoned us. But rather than draining the swamp as he promised, he restocked it with crony capitalists and influence peddlers of his own. He is, after all, a product of privilege, not self-discipline.

When it comes to leadership and power, whether we’re talking about governance, business or the local homeowners’ association, we must remain alert for evidence of hidden agenda in anyone seeking power. And most who actively seek power come with personal reasons for wanting it. Paradoxically, the higher the office, the more likely those hidden agenda are…and the less tolerant of them we can afford to be.

So where are the Clay Conovers today?

Unfortunately, there’s no fool-proof way to ferret out ulterior motives. Ulterior motives are, by definition, hidden. And because most of us have compunctions about lies, we are often taken by surprise when someone lies on the record, especially when those lies prove to be whoppers. (No one would lie about something that important, or that check-able…well, would they?) The answer is, it depends. Who’s doing the talking?

There is a reason we take into account (or should take into account) someone’s record, when they seek elected office. It’s because as a general rule, choosing someone with no record of service for causes greater than him/herself for higher office is a bad idea. Most men and women willing to serve the best interests of their constituents are readily identified by their record. I should add in the next breath, that political, military or civil service does not provide those who have so served with special wisdom, nor is it realistic to expect imperfect men and women to serve to perfection.

So, if service at any level does not equate special wisdom or competence, why not choose someone with no experience and hope for the best? Because service, however flawed, tends to weed out those who lack the stewardship gene. Imperfect a litmus test as that service may be, those willing to take on onerous tasks with little reward except to make a difference, will generally pay us back with faithful, if flawed service, given the chance. They do so because our trust matters more than to them than their personal gain.

The Seductive Lure of Change

Still, when things aren’t going well, it’s tempting to fall prey to thinking that goes like, “when in doubt, throw them all out!” That appears to have been thinking operant in the last election…at the presidential level, at least. It’s a seductive notion that an “outsider” comes with new perspectives may have something of value to add. But a fresh perspective by itself is rarely the answer in anything as complex as governance in the 21st Century.

Nothing illustrates this as clearly as the sophomoric efforts of our current president. Mr. Trump hasn’t been exposed to practical considerations of implementing international strategy or managing macroeconomic systems. His entire life has been viewed through the lens of what’s good for Donald, often advancing it by leveraging no more than his name or resorting to deception. Why, then, would any of us be surprised when he resorts to the same tactics as president? A man without convictions is unlikely to have them grafted-on, once sworn in.

The complexities of stewardship of the most powerful nation on Earth are beyond Mr. Trump’s experience level, and to date, he has demonstrated little interest in learning. Nor does he display much urgency in hiring competent men and women who already know. We have handed the keys to an intellectual lightweight with little conscience and we have no one to thank but our collective selves.


We could be our own problem…

If you voted for him or supported him and are having second thoughts, you cannot claim you didn’t know who he was. His campaign made that abundantly clear. If you are a progressive who watched in dismay and stayed home, rather than vote for Ms. Clinton, you are not now entitled to shout “not my president.” This is our country and collectively, we let it go to hell. This is our mess…we must clean it up.

West of Tomorrow is Dirk’s first novel. It is a contemporary tale following nine pivotal months in the life of Clay Conover, Marine officer turned corporate trainer/organizational development consultant.  Clay’s post-military life on the surface of things, is working out. He has successfully managed his career change and has a long term plan. But his plans do not take into account the hiring of Sheera Prasad. Young, hungry and ambitious, she threatens to sidetrack not only his career, but his life. West of Tomorrow is a tale of corporate intrigue, betrayal, misplaced love and the phoenix living in all of us. West of Tomorrow is now available on Amazon in both eBook and trade paperback formats.

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