Leadership: Calm Under Fire

In 1964, a missionary-pilot named Burleigh A. Law flew a rescue mission to Wembo Nyama. (I know this story because I lived in Wembo Nyama in ’87-’88.) An eastern Congolese rebel group called the Simbas (Swahili for “lions”) had captured the town; they had been killing Congolese and foreigners alike, raping nuns, and allegedly even cannibalizing their victims on some occasions as they swept across eastern and central Congo. Law knew that other missionaries on the ground were in very real danger and he hoped to evacuate them, so he flew overhead and dropped a note. “Stand if it’s not safe to land,” he said, “Sit down if it is safe to land.”  The missionaries who retrieved the note stood as he flew over again. It is not safe to land. Law landed his plane anyway. He was shot and killed by one of the rebel fighters before he could even turn off the plane’s engine.

A friend of mine who is chief of police in a rural township told me once that the reason firemen are often killed is not for lack of training—it’s usually for lack of respect for that training, fueled by a desire to be a hero. His men are often factory workers and farmhands with little other chances at glory (their high school football days behind them) and he worries that they’ll ignore their training precisely because they hope to be that hero. Their odds are low at heroism: for every fireman who emerges a hero from a situation they shouldn’t have gone into, many more lose their lives for the same reason. Risks are calculated for a reason.

“You know, you send people into war zones, you send people into dangerous situations and into riots, and you worry that they are going to get hurt. … You send somebody out to do a story on tourism and — how can you expect something like this to happen?” Jeff Marks, Station Manager, WDBJ, Roanoke, VA, quoted in an article on CNN.com by Elliott C. McLaughlin and Catherine E. Shoichet, 8/27/15.

Marks said this in response to the shooting that killed two journalists, Alison Parker and Adam Ward, just yesterday (this article was drafted 8/27/15).

In his book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Nassim Nicholas Taleb identifies a key issue for leaders that Jeff Marks is today all too aware of: you simply cannot expect the unexpected. You can make all kinds of plans for any number of contingencies, and that’s important, but the fact that something is unexpected and improbable is precisely the reason that it’s impactful.

A friend of mine runs a business that trains emergency personnel and police in deescalating violence. His consulting firm worked with Newton, CT, before the tragic shooting there, and in the wake of their tragedy, the responders won national recognition for their excellent work during the tragedy. Perhaps they saved lives. It’s always hard to say. His firm has been working with Ferguson, MO, police since the resignation of Chief Thomas Jackson in March of this year. Jackson stepped down after a particularly incriminating report from the Justice Department which found that “Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs. This emphasis on revenue has compromised the institutional character of Ferguson’s police department, contributing to a pattern of unconstitutional policing…” (report, p.2.)

Let’s talk about leadership. God willing you’ll never be under fire in any physical sense. But, whether large or small, unexpected things are bound to happen to your business or organization. You won’t really know the nature of your own ability to remain calm under fire until they happen.

  • From Burleigh Law’s death, we can learn to be prepared to listen to the warning signs. Ask your people for signals, and listen to them. “We should not buy this machine, we can’t afford the debt” or “we must take care of this customer no matter what it costs, they are threatening to take their discontent to the internet.” There’s a fine line between courage and stupidity. Know where the line is, and respect it; listen, listen to your people on the ground. That line is the line of humility, and it preserves you.
  • From the deaths of Parker and Ward, we are only reminded that unexpected means just that. You won’t be able to avoid the unexpected. You can prepare and train your staff for contingencies, but not for everything. “Expect the unexpected” is a nonsensical lesson. Be prepared for what you can reasonably prevent, then be prepared to offer kindness to victims of tragedy around you. (How will you treat your employees if your primary buyer goes out of business?)
  • From Chief Thomas’ story, I can only say, be just; it’s the best way to prepare for a moment when you need to de-escalate violence. On the far side of injustice you’ll only find disgrace.

An ancient book tells us what is good: to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. That doesn’t mean you’ll be able to dodge evil, or even the unexpected snafu. But the courage to do those three basic things under fire will make you a great leader. The impact of the improbable can be a good thing, too, when the impact is positive – so go be improbably great, and you’ll make an impact to the positive that has longer lasting power and touch more people for the good than any of these negative events I mentioned will ever accomplish for the sake of evil.

Playing the Blues on Vortex Street

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

John Donne

On the heels of thinking about rivers that move so slowly it’s hard to tell they’re going anywhere, or those lazy spots where everything’s so wide it loses focus, I also see a place where things speed up … in reverse.

In an eddy, liquid spins backwards as it flows past an obstacle.

The old school language for this is backsliding, but the liquid in an eddy will eventually flow downhill with gravity, so this language feels more hopeful. That’s easy when your life is like a river, but what about when mapping your life feels more like oceanography?

Sometimes life feels more like an ocean than a river. Tides slosh us back and forth, and the meteorological systems that accompany and impact our routines are far more complex than the ecosystem of a simple river.  Then there’s the foundational shifting of tectonic plates; in short, life throws so many transitions, changes and complications we easily end up adrift in an ocean when all we hoped for was a ride downstream.

Ocean vortices, also called mesoscale eddies, can sometimes last for months, and cover areas as big as 500 km in diameter.

Even more intriguing is the Karman vortex street, a phenomenon when eddies in a repeating pattern happen on the backside of a blunt object, such as Guadalupe Island, 150 miles west of Baja California. Guadalupe causes a vortex street almost every day from June to August. The alternating eddies formed in a vortex street in the lee of an island take turns in a repeating pattern.

Obstacles that cause regular patterns in our lives can be surreal. Sometimes the obstacles in our lives are permanent and create vortex streets which become part of the landscape. Some days we can ignore them completely because we live with them; other days we have no choice but to acknowledge their existence.

I was talking to Jason (name and story used with permission) last night. Jason routinely places in the top ten in local triathlons, recently he placed 6th in a field of 200+. He once qualified to participate in the Best of US Amateur triathlon and flew from Alaska to Vermont to compete in what turned out to be a pretty exclusive race, with only a handful of male and female qualifiers invited from each state. (He wasn’t one of the top finishers that time, though.) His level fitness comes partly from an incredible work ethic and partly from a diet extremely low in fats because his body can’t handle them. What people don’t see when they watch Jason compete is his chronic familial pancreatitis, with a suspected slow-growing tumor; and he also battles renal cell carcinoma. Jason has undergone multiple surgeries and has been in danger of losing his life. He schedules medical procedures so regularly, he says, “it’s like the way you would schedule with your dentist or eye doctor.” (He tells me that tomorrow, July 22, he has an endoscopy scheduled.) Who knows if he would still be surviving if he didn’t push his body to the limit in training and competition whenever he’s healthy? It gives him the ability to fight when his illness takes over for a period of time.

This condition is Jason’s vortex street. “It’s surreal,” he says, “I’ll place sixth out of more than two hundred in a triathlon, then I’ll come home and there will be a medical bill I have to pay. I don’t feel sick, I feel great.”

The last time he was in the hospital, I went and sat with him for a couple hours, and I cried. I wonder when I will lose some of my closest friends who deal with diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and I treasure the small interactions of our lives; the sharing of a picture of their children on Facebook, a phone call to say “congratulations” for small victories, or “I’m glad you’re feeling better.” If, and ultimately when, we lose these “clods and promontories” as John Donne called them, we will all be the worse. When the bell tolls for them it also tolls for us. We all sing the vortex street blues.

Singing the blues is a simultaneous sharing of woes, while feeling good somehow that a better day will come. My friend Jonathan wrote a song that begins like this:

Better days gonna come again/ put your raincoat on, you’ve been stuck in here too long.

We have to get out. Jason does this better than anyone I know. His body creates one of the most intense vortex streets, a constant drag to the leeward, but his discipline to get his raincoat on and get out is an inspiration.

We often do feel like islands, (and we feel that our own physical selves are that obstacle which causes a vortex street) and yet John Donne insisted, we are not alone, that we must grieve every clod lost to the waves. When our friends are singing the blues on vortex street, our job is not to ignore, but to acknowledge, and to celebrate small victories as we navigate through the eddies. Perhaps worse than the backwards motion of backsliding, like a temporary eddy in a river, is the three-hundred mile wide mesoscale eddy in the ocean, or the vortex street that follows us around like a pair of ribbons streaming behind us, creating drag. The mesoscale eddy or the Karman vortex street are disruptive, regular, and part of the ocean that picks away at our continent.

What’s am I listening looking for? What’s the value of recognizing a vortex street in a friend’s life?  Look for ways to find inspiration from someone’s efforts and then highlight it. Invite people to get their raincoat on and get out.  See people in poverty rehearse and perform a symphony in spite of it. When you see people in pain who compete in spite of it, share each others’ stories (with permission!) and be aware that some of us live with permanent obstacles. The vortex street comes from permanent obstacles, difficult surroundings, but it leaves a trail of beauty if we’ll only look for it.

Congo Reflections Part 5: Liberty

The end game of leadership training in Congo is freedom.

This idea of “liberty and justice for all” we speak of in our pledge of allegiance hasn’t included people in our own country at all times, and it certainly hasn’t included Congo. I’ve addressed in earlier Congo Reflections posts the CIA meddling and even attempting assassinations in Congo. The arrogance of the idea that our military and covert ops ought to “protect our national interest” within the boundaries of other sovereign states is despicable to say the least.

But to focus on the positive: how does leadership training invite freedom in Congo?

Freedom, bravery and heroism are nebulous terms and the US Government, like most governments, control the message of those words. Facebook blew up in the past months with juxtapositions of (nee) Bruce Jenner against images of wounded warriors as examples of bravery. Jenner went through national criticism for the sake of his own comfort. But warriors themselves recognize that they serve a “national” interest driven by big government and (if possible, whenever possible) even bigger corporations.

This government, and these corporations, attract top level leaders, for whom money isn’t even the biggest attraction. It’s power. Power corrupts.

What is it to have a leadership style that lays down power and washes others’ feet instead? It is a leadership style that ultimately results in martyrdom, but its power ends up lasting much longer. Lumumba may have been, as I’ve mentioned, on his way to an absolute power, and who knows if it may have corrupted him? But I believe he was attempting to lead collaboratively – Congo for the Congolese, truly free from imperial influence. The cost was death. The Congo had a chance. The Congo deserves more chances at Liberty. The Congo needs leaders trained to give themselves up. An army of them. A horde. Not so that we invite them to die physically, though that may happen for some. But we invite a view of leadership that carries a vision of death to self. Death to self for a brother’s sake, Jesus said, was the greatest love a man could bear. That’s great leadership, and that frees the people. It is one of the greatest truths known to humanity.

This is truth that sets us free.

Help reverse the trend of imperialism and partner with my trip to Congo to train leaders here!