Thursday, November 1, 2012

Humble and Iraq
“Humble is good.”
An executive director

Last week at my toastmasters club Bob Elwood was challenged to speak impromptu for a couple minutes on “humble.” He really nailed it!

I wonder how many other club members had once been silly like me: As a lad I got humble mixed up with humility, mixed up with humiliation. Somehow, from reading the New Testament, I had thought a good person would try to be a blank, a cipher, while a really good man would even beat his breast when he prayed. As it turns out, my best friend Susan had been to Bible College, and she advised me they call that “worm Christianity.” Not good.

Later, I’ll get back to what Bob told us. For now, I can say that “humble” has been a useful lifestyle choice. To me humble means: Facing reality, calm and sure-footed, without the crutch of relying on (social) rank, fame or fortune. A crutch should never be a way of life, as a crutch can be knocked away: It is too easy to change communities, lose money or become at last merely one more well dressed retiree on the beach.

I have found I can be well respected at work, yet feel like Stephen Leacock while in a bank, and then comfortably call someone else “sir” in the community. I’m still me: Just me, being non-egotistical. It has taken me years to toss my crutch aside.

I still remember how as a young college student, more insecure than humble, whenever I had to give a presentation I compensated for my stage fright by having a bit of an ego high… and that worked… but then at the end of the speech I was humble me again. It was during my college years, taking Rehabilitation Studies, that I asked a teacher: “Why are the staff from the sheltered workshops, and the staff from the group homes, so angry and disrespecting of each other?” She didn’t know. I asked my boss and favorite CEO, Elaine Yost. “Ego” she instantly replied. Ah yes, the opposite of humble.

Elaine is a role model for me. She has taken her for-profit agency from being squished into the upper quarter of a house to being the second largest rehabilitation agency in the city. This while always respecting the clients, parents and guardians--and never subordinating them to red tape. She could manage this because she was a good and humble leader. One year she received a provincial award.

My favorite 20th century US president, Harry Truman, surely had a big enough ego for his job. “The buck stops here” he said. And, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” He managed his ego: he was never egotistical. He never confused himself with his temporary position of being the nation’s CEO. In fact, he talked of folks coming to Washington, on the Potomac River, and then swelling up like frogs with “Potomac fever.” Like Benjamin Franklin, he spoke of stepping down at the end of his term and resuming the most honorable title in all the land: “citizen.” That’s my ideal too. I think a person could counterbalance the stress of even a big Washington job with an ongoing commitment to being humble.

If a big US president can be humble, can a big army general? Sure. General Patton, in the peace before Pearl Harbor, told a fresh lieutenant, “We can always learn from each other.” While some officers will “wimp out” by using military discipline as an armor to keep from accepting feedback or from having to second-guess themselves, the best officers, like Patton with his controversial “unwanted tanks,” will never stop humbly thinking about trying to be better at their profession. I’m thinking now of my favorite peacetime general, Rick Hillier. Having his read his two books, I feel assured he is both competent and humble. Not macho. Maybe it has something to do with growing up in a family of all sisters!

When Hillier speaks, I listen. Here’s what he said about a certain Washington official, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. (p 307) “Rumsfeld struck me as a grumpy old man…” (p308) “Rumsfeld didn’t like people pushing back, and I wasn’t invited to come visit with him anymore…” As the War On Terror limps on, the green Krypton, both personal and systematic, radiating from officials like Rumsfeld should be addressed. Truly, “the personal is the political.”

As I see it, Rumsfeld failed himself when he failed to achieve a lifestyle habit of being humble. For him, the “payoff” for being grumpy, for having blinders on, was he got his own way on so many mistakes for Iraq. His green krypton, alas, destroyed the potential of others to reason and speak. The consequences, for the US army, have been thousands of dead and many, many wounded.

Today it’s historical knowledge the US State Department had offered to help, had even, for example, predicted that the priceless world heritage museums would be looted unless protected, but State involvement was rejected by Rumsfeld.

For me the tip of the iceberg, the most egregious example of Rumsfeld being so unprofessional, was his abusive treatment of General Shinseki. The good general, according to various history books, simply tried to explain, before the invasion, that an occupation would require far more troops than an invasion would, far more troops than what Rumsfeld was envisioning would be required. Rumsfeld’s shocking, scandalous and shameful treatment of Shinseki then produced a chilly climate. When nothing was done to redress the specific scandal, not by “the system,” not by other senior officials, nor even by the president himself, then there could no longer be any general feedback offered by anyone. No one raised any thoughtful questions anymore.

Wow, talk about a “smoking gun” for predicting failure: With Washington so self-blinded and dysfunctional, the occupation to build a “democratic Iraq” was utterly doomed in advance.

How could they blindly ignore the State Department? Any schoolboy who took Vietnam would have told the grownups that for nurturing democracy, for “winning the hearts and minds,” the army, even with the embassy involved, still needs help very, very badly. This means top-down systematic help, not random efforts by individual amateurs with Republican Party membership cards reporting to the embassy. And certainly not amateurs being hired in preference over non-Republican experts, when those experts have years of overseas development experience. Which, unbelievably, is what happened in Iraq. Ego again. State should have been involved, and in charge.

If my boss Elaine were ever to learn of any unprofessional behavior like Rumsfeld’s, even by senior executives, she would take immediate action, and then, if appropriate, let the whole organization know things had been dealt with. It’s clear that General Hillier also believes in functional organizations.

Another smoking gun: I find it all too revealing of ego that for the Bush years no one resigned in a shadow, no one was reprimanded, no one was fired… no, not even for the Wall Street melt down. In contrast, Truman fired America’s most popular serving general, the hero of Korea, right in the middle of the Korean War.

Away from the fancy streets of the capital district, away from the bright financial district, are the patched and cracked asphalt streets of the cities and towns of Middle America. As citizens, what can we do? For my part, I can try to “lead by example.” I can “be part of the solution, not part of the problem.” In other words: I can try to be humble.

My fellow toastmaster Bob Elwood noted (in effect) that being humble is a blessed state of being equal to others, not “greater than” nor “less than.” It means being detached from one’s ego, and from the ego of peer pressure. Humble means not taking things personally; it means “being here now;” it means being authentic to yourself. It’s an altogether fitting and proper state of being.

Last year at work I was tasked to take over a team that was being awfully difficult to manage. I could have gone in with a “stern command presence” to take immediate control. Instead? I went in very polite and humble; it all worked out. I reported back to my boss. She approved, saying, “Humble is good.”

Sean Crawford
As summer wanes
~ Last night at toastmasters Esperanza Montalvo did a speech noting that in a certain less democratic Latin American country they believe, as did her mother, that good people don’t say, “I don’t know.” (Partly because rich leaders “should” know more than poor peasants) Esperanza explained that humbly learning to “not know” was a paradigm shift that truly expanded her world, and her ability to truly listen to others.

~ Regarding Shinseki: “The general left all of us in uniform with a new appreciation of what moral courage means and how important it as to give clear and blunt military advice to the powerful, no matter whether they wanted to hear it or not.” (p 184) A Soldier First subtitled Bullets, Bureaucrats and the Politics of War. HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. 2009

~ For a perspective on how the American people consented to the fiasco of Iraq, see my essay of September 2012, Citizenship After 9/11.

~For the US disgrace, and crazy hiring practices for nurturing democracy in Iraq, see the prize-winning Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran

~ For a simple structural method to mitigate that fiasco, see the last part of my essay of October 2010, Reality Checks.

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