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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.