blog articlesWord & Deed

True Love Doesn’t Negotiate with Emotional Terrorists

Terrorism Friedman

Ter­ror­ism only works with weak lead­er­ship. And it doesn’t have to be an Islam­ic extrem­ist either. Ter­ror­ism takes hold when­ev­er we val­ue some­thing that we real­ly should give up.

  • If you’re a weak leader, and some­one calls you a racist, you try to find ways to prove you’re not. If you’re a strong leader, you ask them to back it up. Or just let it go. Strong lead­ers focus on the work.
  • If you’re a weak leader, work­ing with pas­sive-aggres­sive bureau­crats, you take the respon­si­bil­i­ty on your­self to try to read minds. But if you’re a strong leader, you move for­ward, keep­ing peo­ple in the loop, but let­ting oth­ers car­ry their own idio­syn­crat­ic bur­dens.
  • If you’re a weak leader, you’re more wor­ried about what peo­ple think of you than you are about how you can ben­e­fit them. If you’re a strong leader, you’re hum­ble enough to know that you need to be strong for oth­ers, even if they don’t appre­ci­ate it.

And ter­ror­ism is a great mod­el for show­ing how lead­ers can fight against medi­oc­rity, indul­gence and dis­si­pa­tion.

The Fear of People Drains Your Strength

Ter­ror­ism works when lead­ers are more con­cerned with not screw­ing up than they are about doing the right thing. In oth­er words, when lead­ers become politi­cians, they start wor­ry­ing more about mak­ing peo­ple like them than they are about mak­ing strong moves toward excel­lence.

The leader who allows com­pas­sion to become indul­gence enables the cul­ture to descend into chaos and then fol­lows it down to try to fix it.

Terrorism Tests Leadership

By study­ing ter­ror­ism, maybe we can help us unpack how the fear of peo­ple pre­vents you from tak­ing a stand. Edwin Fried­man, in his book “A Fail­ure of Nerve: Lead­er­ship in the Age of the Quick Fix” had 3 require­ments for ter­ror­ism to hold sway.

    1. Nobody’s real­ly in charge. There’s nobody who’s will­ing to make a strong deci­sion and take respon­si­bil­i­ty for it. Instead, the leader with the deci­sion-mak­ing pow­er looks for back­up, so he can say he wasn’t the only one.
    2. There’s a poten­tial hostage sit­u­a­tion. The ter­ror­ist (bomber, client, employ­ee, child, etc) sees a vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty in lead­er­ship. Think of the child who freaks out in the store, know­ing that mom doesn’t want to spank in the store and doesn’t want to make a scene. Often, the child gets what he wants in that sit­u­a­tion.
    3. The cul­ture (lead­ers and those they lead) put unrea­son­able faith in being rea­son­able. Even though expe­ri­ence shows that ter­ror­ists aren’t rea­son­able, we get par­a­lyzed by indig­nance. And even though we’re indig­nant, we often try to take the “high ground,” and give the ter­ror­ists every pos­si­ble oppor­tu­ni­ty to get right before we kill them. This, of course, rewards ter­ror­ism and endan­gers lives.


We all want to seem like nice, rea­son­able peo­ple. And if there’s no goal focus and no hard lines of account­abil­i­ty, we can ratio­nal­ize any­thing. We get soft.

Nobody’s real­ly in charge because the mis­sion is no longer to be effec­tive, but to also be polite. But let me point out that polite­ness, in a war sit­u­a­tion, where there’s a real mis­sion, is much dif­fer­ent than polite­ness at a din­ner par­ty.

At a din­ner par­ty, you’re there to make friends, have fun and help oth­ers do the same. In war, good peo­ple might die if you put polite­ness before effec­tive­ness.

I’ve nev­er met a CEO worth his/her salt who didn’t know how to hold peo­ple account­able. A cul­ture of direct­ness and account­abil­i­ty makes peo­ple mature. They cease being pet­ty when pet­ti­ness isn’t reward­ed or tol­er­at­ed. But it’s hard­er than it might sound.

To come down hard on pet­ti­ness, mak­ing peo­ple be thick-skinned, is counter to today’s cul­ture, where sen­si­tiv­i­ty is becom­ing a vice. Our past hurts are deter­min­ing how account­able we can be held. Excel­lence is demot­ed, and who­ev­er can be most obsessed with someone’s pain is cel­e­brat­ed.

Now, if you want polit­i­cal pow­er, you stop telling peo­ple to be strong and, instead, get them and every­one around them to obsess over their weak­ness until it becomes a huge polit­i­cal issue.

And if you want to help peo­ple to be strong, you’re called “cal­lous,” “insen­si­tive,” “racist,” and what­ev­er weaponized term they can throw at you. Maybe you can see how, if you’re unrea­son­ably obsessed with not being called “racist,” you’re now under their pow­er, and your lead­er­ship is de-legit­imized. Because your pri­or­i­ties are screwed up.

What to do about it.

Just like every­thing in this sec­tion, this is about char­ac­ter, not tech­nique. Tech­nique will get you part of the way there, but in order to tru­ly take respon­si­bil­i­ty, you have to tell peo­ple the truth, make the rules and insist on progress in every­one around you.

We have to break this cul­ture of self­ish­ness, and build a cul­ture where the only peo­ple who are tol­er­at­ed are the ones who care about the right things and love and fight with hon­or.

There are no tricks. If you want to run bet­ter, you get out and start pound­ing the pave­ment. If you want to eat less, you you don’t get a sec­ond help­ing and you get com­fort­able with your stom­ach hurt­ing some­times. If you want to lead, you’ll make deci­sions.

  • Ask for account­abil­i­ty. Build rela­tion­ships with peo­ple who have the val­ues you want. For exam­ple:
    • A friend who’s a CEO and who, him­self, wants to grow.
    • A friend who takes a lot of action in her own life.
    • God: Ask for help. This works when you wor­ship a god who acts when we want to do the hard things that make us stronger.
  • Stop car­ing about the motives that peo­ple apply to your actions.
    • They attack you unfair­ly when they don’t like things.
    • Is it per­son­al? Would that make a dif­fer­ence?
  • Start plan­ning against goals and val­ues.
    • Write down SMART goals and ori­ent your entire team toward them.
    • Ask them to make sug­ges­tions and come with plans that fit those goals.

Fight with a Stronger Weapon: Love

Offer them some­thing stronger than their pet­ty con­cerns. You can’t over­come a soft cul­ture if you don’t have some­thing high­er to offer. Peo­ple are com­pas­sion­ate, and often fail to see that com­pas­sion has a dark side: good feel­ings and good inten­tions can pave the road to hell.

Truth with love is the answer. Love your peo­ple enough to demand the best from them. Love your cus­tomers enough to give them the best of your peo­ple.

There’s such a thing as a love that lies. And it’s not real love. Its the mom who pre­tends her kid is real­ly good at some­thing because she doesn’t want to hurt his feel­ings. It’s the hus­band who goes in debt so his wife can get a car, even though it puts them in a bad finan­cial sit­u­a­tion.

You see, with true love [a con­cern for oth­ers that’s so self­less that you care more about truth in their life than whether they like you], there’s not a whole lot of con­flict. Under­stand­ing makes us feel good and builds trust. But suf­fer­ing just enough makes us strong and able to do good in the world.

Next Issue, we’ll talk through three tac­tics for putting these ideas to work.