Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Machiavelli on Leadership: Book 13 of 2016, The Prince

Politicians are leaders.  The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli has much to say about leadershipas he talks about politics.  Rather than try to review this gold mine of leadership in one post, I am going to spread this review over several posts talking about Machiavelli's many maxims on how leadership works.

Early in the book, Machiavelli tells the reader that those who want to understand a valley climb a mountain and those who want to understand mountains look up from the valley.  With this he says leaders understand the people and the people understand leaders.  

My view of leadership, like Machiavelli's, is from the valley looking up.  I was never higher than a staff sergeant in the Army and turned down any job above manager as a civilian.  

But looking up, I could see things differently than the person in charge.  Machiavelli says that a leader must be sure that the staff directly reporting to her be completely loyal to her, or she should dismiss them.  Machiavelli says the character of her staff defines the leader herself.  

In my experience both in and out of the Army, one sure sign of a weak and indecisive leader is a staff that is fighting among themselves for power rather than working together for the interest of the leader.  My last civilian job was at a museum and library founded by a man who raised more than $100 million for the place he founded and was viewed as an autocrat by his staff.  But during the five years I worked for him, his senior staff made sure their part of the organization pulled together when the President gave them a job to do.  The founder left at 25 years with an amazing run of success.

After he left, the next president and one one that followed were the kind of leaders who wanted concensus and cooperation.  Very rapidly, the senior staff became a group of separate businesses who happened to occupy the same building.  At this time the museum and library is searching for the next president.  Machiavelli says if they don't find a strong leader, the infighting will only get worse.

On the other side, I was part of Brigade '76, a Mechanized Brigade sent to Wiesbaden, West Germany, in 1976, to add more troops to defend against the Soviet Union.  Our alert area was Fulda on the east-west border.  Within 48 hours of landing in Germany, the tank battalion I was in, two mechanized infantry battalions, artillery and support units were fully combat loaded and patrolling the border fence.  

Col. Riscassi took that mission and made sure every member of his staff was executing their part.  Or they were gone.  I worked in his headquarters the following year and saw his leadership up close.  He was very formal, took advice when he asked for it, but not otherwise (another maxim of Machiavelli) and was always in charge.  

Machiavelli says if you want to see how good a leader is, look at the staff.  If the people who are closest to him respect the leader and carry out commands with energy, that is a good leader.  When the staff shows infighting and turmoil, the leader is weak and irresolute.  

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Packing Up My Army Uniforms, and Giving Them to My Kids

Kelsey and Nigel in my old uniforms.  
Kelsey is wearing a dress green jacket from the 70s, Nigel is recent camouflage.

Today was the first drill weekend I missed since September of 2007.  This is my discharge month and I am officially a civilian.  So I packed the uniforms, hats, gloves, medals and other gear I still have into a footlocker.

In addition, my son Nigel and our Host-Daughter Kelsey thought they would love to have some of the clothes for parties, etc.  So the footlocker that went to the basement isn't even full.  I still have the new Army fitness uniform in my closet and the shirt we wore with body armor.

My sons are also claiming boots for fashionable teenage wear.  Some days it is hard to believe I am out of the Army.  Some days I can't believe I was in so recently.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

General Problem: When the Division Commander Wants Branding

During Annual Training 2014, I had the delightful experience of using my civilian public relations skills as a soldier. The fuelers of the my unit set up a refueling site at the Pottsville Airport.  I called the Pottsville Republican Herald and talked to a reporter who was interested in the military.  I gave him dates and times that he could get pictures and videos of Chinook and Blackhawk helicopters refueling at the airport.

He showed up with a photographer and video cameras.  The commander of the refueling unit showed him all around the site.  The result was a the front-page, above-the-fold story and photos you see above.  I was elated.  I bought a half dozen copies.  The reporter had also posted videos on the newspaper's web site.


The day after the story was published I was in the State Public Affairs Office on Fort Indiantown Gap when Major General John Gronski walked in with a copy of the newspaper in his hand.  I could see he was upset.  The two majors in the office jumped from their chairs to talk to the General who wanted to know how this story was placed.  He was upset that the headline said "National guard trains at airport."

He wanted the headline to say "28th Infantry Division trains at airport." He wanted "branding" for his unit.

The public affairs officers tried to explain that this was a very positive story on the front page and that we cannot control what a newspaper says in headlines.


The General left a few minutes later because there was nothing that could be done with a newspaper that was already printed.

Some leaders have a good sense of how communications works.  Some don't.  I have worked for civilian and military leaders who knew how public relations works, and for leaders who don't.  Most military leaders I have known are suspicious of the media at best, so the General's reaction was not surprising.

Ten years ago on the best day of my working life I coordinated a story that was most of the front page and half of an inside page of the New York Times "Science Times" section.  It was a literal million-dollar public relations score for the company I worked for.  The story was completely positive.  It was a great story by the leading science historian at the Times.  Most of the staff was elated.

In  the midst of the congratulations and high fives, the grumpy Quaker CFO of the company said, "They don't mention our name until the sixth paragraph."
With both the general and the grumpy Quaker, I knew there was nothing more to say.


Shortly after I retired from my civilian job, I took a course in fiction writing at Franklin and Marshall College.  I wanted to learn the mechanics of writing fiction but I also took the course as a kind of mental mouthwash to clean public relations out of my mind and tell the whole truth when I write, at least from my perspective.  Public relations, like lawyering, strongly relies on telling exactly the truth you want an audience or a jury to hear--not the whole truth.

I got paid to do that for 30 years.  Now I can tell the truth as I see, and not get paid.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Book 11 of 2016: "Underground Man" by Fyodor Dostoevsky, a chilling portrait of cowardice.

When I first believed in Christianity, I was in the Army in Germany in the 70s.  The only Church was the Army Chapel system.  So I read widely and listened to sermons to figure out what exactly being a Christian meant.  Among the many cassettes I listened to were sermons by southern revival preachers.  After hearing dozens of these sermons I began sense the rhythms and themes that these stirring speeches shared. 

The best sermons began in sin, descended almost to Hell, then rose up on the wings of God’s Grace.  After a while, it became clear that, although every preacher was a terrible sinner, they only committed sins that a conservative southern audience considered manly.  All were fornicators, but they were fornicators with lovely, willing women.  Many told stories of drug use, but more told stories of being drug dealers.  If they drank, they could hold their liquor.  If they fought, they won or were beaten to the point of death by several attackers.  If they stole, they robbed banks and stores and drug dealers.  In other words, they sinned boldly, bravely and in ways that their audiences could admire.  They could repent proudly after a sin well done.

But all real thieves begin their crime careers by stealing from their mother or their sisters and brothers.  Many boys dream of having a half-dozen beautiful devoted lovers, but their reality is looking at lewd pictures in their bed or the bathroom.  None of these confessions included rape, gay sex, theft from loved ones, drunkenly wetting the bed, or getting bitch slapped by a bully. 

In The Screwtape Letters C.S. Lewis says “Cowardice, alone of all the vices, is purely painful—
·      horrible to anticipate,
·      horrible to feel,
·      horrible to remember.” 
Lewis said we can be made to feel proud of most vices, but not of cowardice. 

So the Texas preachers avoided any whiff of cowardice in their confessions.  But in the book Notes from Underground  by Fyodor Dostoevsky the main character is in a downward spiral of cowardice that ends with him tormenting a prostitute he has just had sex with. 

Unlike the Revival Preachers, Fyodor Dostoevsky, shows his readers sin in the full flower of corruption.  The Underground Man boils with rage, but shrinks back from direct confrontation.  He imagines slights where there are none, and simmers with resentment.  He betrays every kindness and finally locks himself in a basement, unable to work or talk to anyone except himself. 

The Underground Man is shabby and filthy, yet vain about his appearance.  He thinks endlessly about how to repay perceived slights, and cannot respond to any kindness except with spite and rejection. 

In every coward who is bullied there is a bully inside him ready to turn mercilessly against someone weaker than himself.  The Underground Man bullies the prostitute because he can.   

My first Russian Literature professor said “Tolstoy shows us God the Father; Dostoevsky shows us Christ loving the least of us.”  The Underground man is weak, a coward and a wretched bully: an actual picture of sin, not the shiny, glossy ready-for-Prime-Time picture of sin I was hearing from the preachers. 

For sin as it really is, Underground Man is painfully good as are Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, and all of the wrenching stories and novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Swiftboat Veterans for Truth and Viagra: Hard Messages to Soft Audiences

Many pundits are calling the current Presidential election with too much confidence.  Politics in America is war limited to words, but it is war. And the outcome of war often turns on surprise: hitting the enemy hard from a place no one saw coming.  From the arrows at Agincourt defeating the French knights to the Scipio beating Hannibal and the Carthaginians at Zama, surprise wins.  And this fall, a surprise no one sees coming may make one of the candidates a winner.  In my view, a surprise attack on John Kerry led to his defeat in 2004.  

More than a decade ago, I was watching a TV and a commercial for Viagra came on the screen.  I was not paying attention until the warning about side effects came on.  Then I could not stop laughing.  I called a couple of friends who were in advertising and we laughed more. 

Until that moment, every drug commercial used an auctioneer for the mandatory health warning at the end of the ad.  In this commercial, the side effects in the middle of the commercial in a deep, slow voice. 

“For an erection lasting more than four hours, seek medical help.  Prolonged use may cause blindness.


Tell a guy who can’t get hard that he may have an erection lasting four hours!  At four hours and one minute that guy will walk into the Emergency Room and let the whole world know he has had a woody for 241 minutes—and counting.

Most Viagra customers are older.  They are old enough to remember being warned as I was in the 1950s that masturbating will make you go blind.  Here is a drug that will make a limp guy hard for four hours AND make you blind.  It must be great stuff. In reality, going blind or a 4-hour erection are much less likely than winning the lottery, but they remind Viagra customers of the days when they were young and the problem they had was being hard all the time!

The commercial won a national Addy Award, the advertising equivalent of the Oscars, as it should! 

What does Viagra have to do with Swift Boat Veterans forTruth—the ad campaign that torpedoed a Vietnam War veteran and let two guys who ducked Vietnam War service win the election?  Those ads told a public that was most ignorant of military life that John Kerry was a terrible candidate because he lied about his war record.  In 2001, American soldiers went from Zeroes during the Vietnam War and to Heroes that were defending us from terrorism. By 2004 soldiers were the most trusted people in America. 

This Swift Boat ad campaign would have been met with derision in the decades right after World War 2, when every American family had a soldier in it and everybody knew many soldiers.  Fifteen million soldiers served in World War 2.  And some of them told lies so fantastic they would make Mark Twain blush.  I went to Basic during the Vietnam War and heard some of the most incredible lies I have ever heard from my fellow basic trainees. 

What the Kerry haters really wanted to say was way too complicated and controversial for 30-second TV ad.  They wanted to say Kerry turned on his fellow soldiers when he returned from Viet Nam.  With Jane Fonda in Paris he came way too close to consorting with our enemies.  I have hated John Kerry since he testified before Congress in 1970 and I think of him as an unconvicted traitor. 

Attacking Kerry for his real crime would have failed. Jane Fonda is an icon of film.  And for many people, Jane Fonda did nothing wrong.  So the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attacked Kerry first as a liar.  The attack worked.  From the first moment I heard that campaign, I knew they were attacking Kerry in a way that most of the public would understand rather than attack him for what most veterans were really angry about. 

Both ads worked because they took amplified minor facts to achieve a major goal:  selling blue pills and defeating John Kerry.  The number of Viagra users who have actually had an erection lasting four hours would fit in a Boston Subway car.  The ones who have actually gone blind could fit in an old-fashioned phone booth. 

As to liars in uniform, the majority of the military consists of men under the age of 24, far from home, insecure and trying to blend with an intensely macho group.  Some of the more incredible lies I have ever heard, I heard in a barracks. 

So both campaigns used facts that would reach their audience to get attention.  Once they had that attention, then they could add in all the other information they really wanted to convey. 

Viagra marketers told their attentive customers how to get the drug through their doctors.  The doctors warned the patients of side effects that actually might happen.  Swift Boat Veterans for Truth amplified every misdeed of John Kerry through and after his service in the Vietnam War.  By the time of the election two guys who stayed home from the war were Heroes and the actual combat veteran was a Zero.

In mass communication, starting with the most important message is often the worst strategy for getting your message to your audience.

Viagra made the rare side effects the center of their message when some bright ad writer realized the warning was just what the audience wanted to hear.

Like the smart guys who sent the murderer Al Capone to prison for tax evasion, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth hit Kerry from an angle he never expected to deny him the biggest job in the world.   

Mission Accomplished.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Need a Fitness Plan? Ask Someone Who Is Out of Shape

The day after my unit arrived at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, to train for deployment to Iraq, we took an Army Fitness Test.  Forty-two of the 110 soldiers in the unit failed the test.  I volunteered be the sergeant in charge of getting those men and women in shape. 

Our commander was a 25-year-old Lieutenant who scored nothing but maximum on the fitness test.  He could see that pre-deployment training for the soldiers who failed was a medley of pizza, beer and video games.  He lined up the forty-soldiers and introduced me as the remedial fitness training sergeant.  One line in his introduction I will never forget:  “Sergeant Gussman is older than every one of your mothers and he scores in top ten percent of the fitness test.  You are even half his age and you all flunked.”  He went on to remind them about their commitment to Army values, their enlistment and other ways in which they were utter failures.

Our company had fitness training every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 530am and ruck marches, the confidence course and other training on Sunday.  Remedial fitness was at 7pm on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. 

For the 90 minutes I had the out-of-shape group, they did aerobic exercise.  They ran the track, ran on machines in the gym, used the stair stepper and other aerobic machines.  Most of them flunked the run.  Most of them were overweight.  Even the ones who flunked the pushups and situps would be better if they lost weight so I my program was keep your out-of-shape soldiers moving and away from video games.

Which led me to discover another big difference between out-of-shape people and avid athletes.  During the two months we were at Fort Sill, nearly every one of the soldiers who failed the fitness test came to me privately to tell me about a diet or a fitness plan they were sure was the key to getting in shape. 

I listened to a couple of these, but by the third, I could see only faith in fast answers.  They were the fitness equivalent of poor people that buy lottery tickets: they don’t want to do anything as boring as saving so they take whatever money they can scrape together and buy lottery tickets—and get more poor.

By the fifth one of these earnest conversations, I reminded the fat boy in front of me that he was half my age and he flunked a test I could pass.  Shut up and get back on the track was my answer to his question of could he do his own program.

In contrast to the out-of-shape people who know the perfect exercise plan, the serious athletes I know are searching for a better plan.  A bicyclist I know who wants to do an Ironman asked me if I had a coach.  He wanted to know which Ironman plan I followed.  This guy who had recently ridden more than 100 miles in six hours, can easily swim two miles in just over an hour, and did a marathon in under four hours was asking for training plans.  And he was searching the web for coaches and training plans. 

In one of the sad ironies of life, the only people who are sure about their training plan are the people who can’t live up to whatever low standard they set for themselves.  The people already exercise 20 hours a week are the ones who are looking to make those hours more productive. 

Friday, May 6, 2016

Book 10 of 2016: Does Altruism Exist?

Does Altruism Exist? Great topic, not so great book.  I read this book for the Evolution Table discussion group at Franklin and Marshall College.

Every other week, the discussion turned to soldiers and first responders.  Why do soldiers throw themselves on grenades and face withering fire to rescue a comrade?  What led hundreds of police and fire fighters to enter the doomed towers on September 11, 2001?

This book by David Sloan Wilson has no direct answer.

We read this book because it was written partly as an answer to the Fall Semester book:  “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins.

Dawkins says altruism has no place in a discussion of genetics.  Wilson says altruism has a genetic basis and that evolution favors altruism in the struggle between and among groups. 

I thought Wilson made a convincing argument, but each week we discussed another chapter.  And each week the biologists, physicists, psychologists and other researchers in the discussion poked holes in Wilson’s arguments.  Interestingly, they poked more and bigger holes in Wilson’s arguments than they did in those of Dawkins the previous semester. 

If you read just these two books to decide whether you think Evolution is driven by individuals only or occurs among groups, then Dawkins will win.  Of the two, I am much more convinced by Dawkins.  I say this as a Believer, knowing that Dawkins dismisses all belief.  Evolution is biology, so on the strictly material level, it is interesting to know how and why growth and change occur, which they do everywhere, and all the time.  I have no trouble imagining Evolution as a predator, killing the weak and perpetuating itself through strength and power.

That puts nature below spirituality and puts sacrifice above and apart from mere nature.  For me, the weakness of Wilson’s argument is his attempt to put a scientific dimension on a metaphysical dimension of life.  Mother Teresa is best explained by her passion to honor her Lord and Savior.  Mere genetics does not lift lepers from gutters. 

Soldiers are trained to save their brothers and sisters on the battlefield while destroying the enemy.  But bravery either in rescue or fighting is something beyond mere genetics.  Wilson says as much, but is not convincing.