Ngo Dinh Diem

Leadership Lessons from The Lost Mandate of Heaven

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Ngo Dinh Diem
Ngo Dinh Diem (Photo: “Biografías y Vidas”)

Last week, I reviewed The Lost Mandate of Heaven by Geoffrey D. T. Shaw (Ignatius Press), While Lost Mandate is not a leadership book, senior leaders can mine a number leadership lessons from it.

The Most Senior Leader Must Remain Engaged

Kennedy was involved in most of the decisions leading up to the coup, but the author never presents any evidence that he was involved in making an affirmative “go/no-go” decision. It appears he simply allowed his advisors and senior Cabinet officials to make national decisions without his direct input. C-suite leaders must walk a fine line between micro-managing and being too passive. As I detail in Leading Leaders, senior executives have to understand where to be personally involved and what to delegate. This skill more than any other is essential for leaders at all levels but vital for senior leaders. Executives can strangle an organization by over-controlling, but they can also find themselves dangerously off-course by “checking out” and allowing others to make decisions only the CEO should make. Kennedy was directly involved in how US military forces supported the Bay of Pigs invasion, but appears to have left the decision to remove and ultimately have Diem murdered in the hands of a committee.

Facts, Facts, Facts–Even When They Clash With Your Worldview

Senior leaders can become so enamored with their own ideas and ideology that they refuse to accept facts when they see them. This results in senior leaders making decisions on emotion and guesswork rather than on facts. The CIA and DoD, as well as dissenting elements of State and even VP Johnson all told Kennedy that Diem was the right man to lead South Vietnam. Instead, false and misleading reports as well as outright fabricated stories in the press seem to have contributed to the decision to remove Diem. Senior leaders must insulate themselves against emotional decisions by constantly seeking out data to drive decisions. Additionally, those same leaders must be willing to be convinced when the weight of the facts contradicts their preconceived notions. The coup was enabled because facts from people who actually had first hand knowledge of Diem and South Vietnam were ignored in favor of “experts” in Washington and New York.  Senior leaders and executives must continually ask “why?” and reward those who are courageous enough to speak their minds. Failure to do so will result in reports of everything being “great” right up to the point of bankruptcy or worse.

Culture and History Are Crucial

As I’ve written before, being culturally literate is a central precept to doing business in the 21st century. The world is very “small” due to high speed travel and communication, so a failure to understand the context of decisions usually leads to poor decisions. Furthermore, making uninformed decisions not only frustrates our aims, it usually leads to unintended consequences. The uninformed “experts” in Washington believed they could replace a scholar with a military general without understanding the cultural significance of that act. The Vietnamese people, and even Ho Chi Minh himself, believed Diem and honorable man and a patriot–he had the Confucian Mandate of Heaven to lead. Upending the social order and removing the man with the Mandate invited disunity and social chaos the Communists exploited to their benefit. The aim of removing Diem was to speed the victory over the Communists, but it probably enabled the Communists’ victory 10 year later. With Diem gone and the military in charge, the war ceased to be a national fight for the heart of the Vietnamese people and instead became a proxy war between the Americans and Soviets to the benefit of the Vietnamese Communists. Executives have to rely on their staffs of experts, but they have to understand the context of every decision. That sort of expertise only comes with experience and study. The best international organizations spend considerable energy to understand their environment and make decisions in the context of the cultures and people involved. No matter how good the intel, the best decisions are made collaboratively with those involved and affected.

Unity Does Not Mean Uniformity

Diem understood he governed in a multi-religious environment (Confucians, Buddhists, and Catholics) and went to pains to ensure he showed no favoritism. It’s ironic, then, that the event probably orchestrated by his enemies in Hanoi and Saigon and that gave his enemies in Washington fodder to oust him was over religious freedom. A quick survey of the facts by Shaw proves Diem was no despot, but that was the label unjustly applied to him as a pretext for his removal. Diem did not require uniformity in belief, only unity of action. In modern parlance, we use the word diversity as shorthand for this idea, but the concept is more than a buzzword or recruiting principle. Unity of effort toward the organizational goals is far more important than uniformity of belief or action. Diem chose people who shared his vision of a democratic and free Vietnam regardless of their religion. Senior leaders would do well to select team members who share their goals and work well with their teammates, rather than looking for a particular pedigree or background. In this way, senior leaders can assure themselves they get the best possible advice and enable the best possible decisions.


Just as in the Kennedy Administration of 1962, leaders can allow their personal biases and lack of first hand knowledge to become a barrier to sound decisions. C-suite leaders and senior leaders at all levels have to guard against allowing that to happen, lest they end up creating a worse situation than the one they’re trying solve. When Kennedy gave the green light to the plotters in Washington and Saigon, he couldn’t have forecasted the cascade of disasters that would follow. While most leaders in business will never have the fate of nations in their hands, their business and their employees are counting on sound decisions. A committment to sober decisions based on facts should always be the senior leader’s priority when they come to work each day. Secondary effects require a clairvoyance few possess.

#TBT Mickey’s Rule #2: Don’t Spook the Herd

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Rule #2. Don’t spook the herd.  Emotional demonstrations are always counter-productive and stifle initiative.

wpid-San-Antonio-Drive.jpgMy second rule, “Don’t Spook the Herd” was born of several lessons I learned personally.  Back in my cadet days at Texas A&M, I learned the importance keeping my emotions in check as a leader when I took over as an Assistant Squad Leader in charge of training my own squad of “fish” (freshmen).

On the second or third day of our version of basic training (benignly called “Freshman Orientation Week”), one of my charges had done something wrong, to which I responded with an animated display complete with arm waving, jumping around, and hollering. One of my upperclassmen called me aside and quietly asked me if I thought my display was effective. I paused for a moment, looked back down the hall where my new “fish” were still at attention, and looked at their faces. A couple were scared, but most of them had a blank look on their faces. They weren’t impressed, and they weren’t motivated. I turned back to my upperclassman and said, “I guess not. Sorry.” He replied, “OK, now go lead them and make them Aggie cadets.”

Even if you don’t come across as angry, a leader still has to maintain calm on the outside. When I was a brand spanking new lieutenant, I was leading a group of Engineer Airmen on a local training deployment about 30 miles from our base. As I was leading the convoy, talking on the radio and giving orders, the master sergeant who was with me quietly told me, “Sir, you need need to calm down.” In my mind, I was calm, but I was not projecting calm. I learned then that it was important for me to be more aware of how I looked and sounded, not just how I felt. A leader has to know himself, true, but he also has to be aware of how his inner feelings are perceived by others. That’s probably why some of the best leaders I’ve ever known have mastered this skill!

I’ve seen plenty of leaders who ruled by fear, but by far the most effective leaders inspire people to be better rather than being afraid. Keep it calm and carry on.

Temperance: Not Just for Carrie Nation

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Turkey Trot 5K USAFA 2103Temperance is the practice of self-control, moderation and abstinence.

Whenever we think of the word “Temperance,” many probably think of Carrie Nation and Prohibition. While moderation or even abstention from alcohol can be Temperance, it is actually a narrow view of it as a virtue. Temperance applies to keeping competing appetites in balance, similar to the way high achieving athletes and scholars train their minds and bodies. In a few words, Temperance means governing your natural human appetites in a way that preserves freedom and prevents harm.

Researchers found that children with who practice good self-control, (i.e., typically better at paying attention, persist with difficult tasks, and suppress inappropriate or impulsive behaviors), are much more likely to find and retain employment as adults, spending 40% less time unemployed than those with a lower capacity for self-control.

“All things in moderation” is a common phrase to describe Temperance, and it works in general, For example, an occasional glass of wine with dinner is fine and even thought to be healthy by some researchers. However, habitual excessive drinking is destructive to the body and relationships. Food is necessary for life, and good food is a pleasure – overindulging or eating unhealthy food intentionally is destructive. Even the internet and video games can be transformed from a fun activity or useful tool into soul crushing addictions if we allow it.

Temperance is the exercise of the will, to enjoy what’s good without letting it become an addiction. It does not need to be one of the “common” vices, simple unhealthy attachment to things can become personally destructive.

For example, take the attachment to “things”. Moving as often as I have during my military career, my family has had the unique opportunity to eliminate a lot of ‘stuff’. We have been fairly successful at paring our belongings down to a necessary minimum, mostly voluntarily but sometimes involuntarily, when things are lost or broken during shipment. Consequently, there are very few things that are truly precious to any of us, and the items that are precious to us have sentimental rather than monetary value. Each time movers (strangers) have come to my home to box up our household and then load everything onto a truck, we have to come to grips with what is really important. We hold our breath and entrust those same strangers to deliver everything we possess to a new house, a new assignment. When the house is empty and the papers are signed, watching the truck drive away forces me to remember that “it’s only stuff”. Each time in this situation, my family is offered the opportunity to practice a little Temperance.

The polar opposite example of Temperance with our “stuff” is hoarding. You might be familiar with the television show that is similarly named.  The people the cast and producers are trying to help, have let “stuff” completely take over their lives. By allowing their homes to overflow with possessions (and debris), they often forfeited relationships with family and friends, and frequently endangered their own health. Without Temperance and the ability to prioritize appropriately, competing appetites will control us until we are no longer free. Without Temperance, our own appetites and passions can enslave us and cause us harm.

Athletes understand this virtue very well, as they discipline their minds and bodies in order to achieve success in their sport. They may take on a special or restrictive diet, they may trade sleep for workouts, and they eschew certain celebrations, or even common comforts, in order to be their best. This sort of mental, physical, and spiritual preparation is a commonly proven way for athletes to succeed. We applaud that sort of self-control in them, but is it really out of reach for us?

Of course not. We all have practice applying Temperance, at a variety of levels. I believe the virtue of Temperance, applied in a sensible way that respects Universal Human Goods, is a necessary component to living a healthy adult life. Whenever we delay gratification or order our priorities toward a specific end, we are practicing Temperance. So, when we stay late to finish the presentation that is due tomorrow, we are subsuming our own personal comfort because others are counting on us. When we make sure to leave on time to meet our spouse for dinner, we are balancing our time for the spouse we vowed to “love, honor, and cherish”. When we decline dessert so we can stick to our diet, when we turn off Call of Duty to help our kids with their homework, and when we delay our lunch to comfort a coworker having a bad day –  those are demonstrations of te Temperance.

Let Carrie Nation bury the hatchet, those of us with a balanced sense of Temperance will continue to grow and become “more free” by gaining an ability to control our own appetites.

Book Review: Lost Mandate of Heaven

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Leaders are also readers, and when I travel I use the time to catch up on my reading and writing. Ignatius Press recently sent me The Lost Mandate of Heaven by Geoffery D. T. Shaw to review, and it was time well spent!

Shaw tells the story of the rise and betrayal of President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam. The book is extremely well researched, footnoted, and written–worthwhile for students of history, politics, or leadership.

Ngo Dinh Diem, the man who would become the President of South Vietnam, was actually born in what was once the Demilitarized Zone between the North and South to a politically connected Catholic family. His father’s political connections to the French colonial authorities and his Catholic faith meant he was well-educated in Western thought, and his membership in one of Vietnam’s “great families” meant he was immersed in Confucian thought. Diem even considered the priesthood briefly, but in the end his duty to his country ruled his heart. In short, in both education and temperament, no one was better prepared than Diem to guide Vietnam during the transition from colonial and post-war society into the modern family of nations. Unfortunately, due in no small part to meddling from Washington by people who had no first hand knowledge of Vietnam or Diem, this was not to be.

Post-World War II Vietnam suffered from the same political and societal chaos as the rest of the world. Communists and opportunists used the vacuum created by retreating and defeated empires to attempt to install regimes friendly to their own agendas. At the conclusion of the Pacific War in 1945, just as in Korea, Japanese forces surrendered to separate Allied nations in different parts of the country. In the South, the British forces accepted the Japanese surrender while in the North, it was the Chinese. When the French installed Emperor Bao Dai, the Communist Viet Minh (later: Viet Cong) led by Ho Chi Minh began the First Indochina war to overthrow the French-supported post-colonial regime and install a Communist government. With considerable support of the Soviet Union and Chairman Mao’s People’s Republic, the Viet Minh defeated the French-Vietnamese National Army at Dien Bien Phu. It was then the Great Powers partitioned Vietnam with a promise of UN-supervised elections that never came. Ngo Dinh Diem had risen through the ranks of colonial government, became president of South Vietnam in 1955. Due to his social status and his occupation as a scholar, many Vietnamese saw Diem as the leader with the Confucian “Mandate of Heaven” to rule. After reflection, it seems to me the crux of the conflict between North and South Vietnam was not so much between Communism and Capitalism, or between Buddhism, Christianity, and Confucianism. Rather, it was a battle in the hearts and minds of the people of Vietnam about who had the Mandate of Heaven: Ngo Dinh Diem or Ho Chi Minh.

Many elites on the Left in the USA saw Diem very differently than the people of Vietnam. It was telling to me that the men who actually went to Vietnam and spoke with Diem respected and supported him, while policy wonks inside the Beltway who had done neither plotted his removal. Vice President Johnson argued forcefully against Diem’s removal, as did Ambassador Colby, Chief of Mission in Saigon. Both men had met with Diem personally, and both had been to Vietnam themselves. The Viet Cong did a masterful job of playing up the slightest mistakes and even twisting events to appear to be what they were not. An American press anxious for stories that sell magazines, sometimes printed poorly researched stories then stuck with their line when the facts on the ground didn’t match. Finally, while the author doesn’t explicitly say it in the book, reading the quotes from senior leaders and policymakers at the time makes it clear there was considerable willingness to believe the worst of Diem, and few who were willing to allow facts to rule their judgement when those facts contradicted their preconceived notions.

Ultimately, the Kennedy Administration encouraged, either passively or actively, the removal and killing of of Diem in Saigon. In Confucian society, the scholar is at the top of the social respect pyramid, and the soldier is near the bottom. In encouraging the coup, Kennedy Administration demonstrated not only an appalling lack of understanding of the facts on the ground, but a complete disregard for the culture we were meddling in. By replacing a scholar-monk like Diem with a junta made up of soldiers, we effectively upended and “un-ordered” society at precisely the moment when order and national unity was a prerequisite for winning the war against the North and stabilizing the country. The results were predictable: chaos and a lack of national will to fight the Viet Cong and the North.


The ouster of Diem was not America’s finest hour, and was a result of ideology in Washington trumping solid leadership and sober decision-making. The Lost Mandate of Heaven is well-written and thoroughly researched. Shaw does an excellent job of laying out the facts, and I particularly appreciated the heavy use of primary sources. Quotes from the major decision makers’ own personal writings, official records, and direct-cited official communications all lay out a clear and unemotional case of at best malfeasance by the Kennedy Administration, and at worse criminal behavior for planning the unlawful coup of an ally. It’s a book worthy of any reading list on history, organizational dynamics, or leadership. I recommend this book highly.

Justice as a Virtue?

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justiceAccording to Aristotle, Justice is the proper moderation between self-interest, the rights and needs of others, and rendering to each person what is deserved.

We most often think of “Justice” in the legal sense: the system of enforcement of laws, including punishment for committing crimes. But the virtue of Justice is much more than merely administering laws and regulations. At a basic level, the essence of justice is that people are given their due. There is a measure of precision in Justice, because to do so requires a person to weigh and measure what another deserves. Unlike the other three virtues which deal primarily with self-governing, Justice is a virtue that applies to how we treat others.

How does the ordinary person employ the virtue of Justice? Is Justice only for courts and police? Of course not.

Like all the virtues, the ordinary person can develop the virtue of Justice by treating others fairly in their common dealings. Paying a fair price for what you buy is Justice, as is repaying a loan promptly and in full. Taking responsibility for a failure in the workplace and not allowing another to take the blame is also a form of Justice. In fact, we have the opportunity to apply Justice in all of our personal, professional and familial relationships. Justice need not have a negative connotation, such as “bringing a criminal to Justice.” It can, and should be, a positive virtue where we understand and willingly accept our responsibilities to others.

Like all virtues, we can abuse Justice as well. If we weigh competing needs unequally, or a person’s application or desire for Justice overwhelms Universal Human Goods (such as Truth), then Justice can easily transform into the vices vengeance or lawlessness. Justice as a virtue is not an end in and of itself – it is a means where we, as individuals and as a society, protect human dignity.

Justice’s other traveling companion is Mercy. Mercy allows us to temper raw justice so we respect Universal Human Goods and inflict no unnecessary harm in the name of Justice. For example, in many countries, automobile operators are considered “professional drivers” and are criminally liable for vehicular accidents. Justice demands criminal sanction in some cases, but Mercy applied by those in authority, when appropriate, prevents people from going to jail for routine “fender benders”.

Raw Justice would fill jails, Mercy ensures only actual criminals go there.

Dynamic Dozen: Know Yourself and Seek Self Improvement

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Leadership Quote AFS

Out of every one hundred men, ten shouldn’t even be there, eighty are just targets, nine are the real fighters, and we are lucky to have them, for they make the battle. Ah, but the one, one is a warrior, and he will bring the others back.
― Heraclitus

One of the most valuable lessons I learned as a new “fish” in the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets was I would never be a leader until I learned to follow first. Believe me, an Aggie Cadet follows like hell their first year. In addition to the academic demands of our coursework, we were required to join a club, and attend various sporting and University events. Our upperclassmen also led us in volunteer work and intramural sports.

What my upperclassmen were trying to give us the space and example to do, was to discover who we are as individuals, and to develop in us the desire for continuous self improvement. For people to grow into maturity, these skills are important–for leaders, they’re vital. You can’t lead anyone if you don’t know who you are or where you want to go.

Know Yourself

Getting to know yourself is a lifelong pursuit, and there are no shortcuts to the journey. You can go to seminars and read books, and those are helpful aids to discovery, but the only sure way to learn who you are is to step out and live life. As I told my Airmen many times, “Don’t be a cave dweller. You can’t live your life coming home to XBox and energy drinks–get outside and do something!” Experiencing life is the only sure way to learn who you are and what you’re capable of doing. Obviously, this approach involves risk–you might fail–but even those failures can illuminate our character and our aptitude. I’m not talking about living recklessly or violating your conscience. What I am talking about is living deliberately instead of allowing life to happen to you. Set goals, take (reasonable) chances, and be prepared to make mistakes. Thomas Edison famously spoke about the number of times he failed to make a light bulb before he succeeded.

Learning about yourself means knowing what you want and setting about getting to that destination. That means you do have to do some introspection, but once you’ve settled on a direction: move out. If you allow life to just happen instead of living each day deliberately, you’ll never get to the next step: seeking self improvement.

Continuous Self Improvement

One of the hallmarks of every great leader is each continued to seek to improve themselves. To do that, we need to understand the ways we see ourselves and can improve ourselves. I like to think of the human person in three facets: Mind, Body, and Spirit. In approaching your life as seeking balance between these three sides or facets of your person, you can take deliberate steps to improve yourself. I was privileged to attend several in-residence professional military education colleges, and I remember being awed by the very high quality of the guest speakers we heard. Each of them, man and woman, military and civilian, were high achievers: generals, military heroes, C-suite executives, statesmen, and professional athletes. All of them had a couple of things in common: they were early risers and they continued to improve themselves in each facet of their person. They were widely read and continued to keep up with current literature; they found time to exercise regularly, and they spent time attending to their human spirit.

As leaders, our commitment to continuous self improvement not makes us better people, it also increases our effectiveness. The sort of leader who is a life-long learner and always seeking to better himself is the same sort of person who sees opportunity when others see disaster. Indeed, a commitment to continuous self improvement usually translates to a leader whose eyes are on the horizon. Those men and women are people others want to follow, and better yet, they are leaders who know where to take their teams.

Summing Up

Leaders who know themselves and seek to improve themselves are exactly the sorts of people we love to follow.


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If Your Friends All Jumped Off A Cliff…

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Cliff-Jumping-in-Lago-Vista-TexasPrudence is the ability for one to determine what is appropriate at any given time.

In the virtue of Prudence, we find the ability to make sound choices in the real world – choices that either expose us and others to danger or shield us from it.


A personal story might be helpful here, as it illustrates a lack of prudence that could have cost me my life, and how the common choices we make sometimes have profound consequences. My college friends and I were inner-tubing down the Guadalupe River near San Antonio, Texas and came upon the spot known as the “Blue Hole.” It was a very deep spot in the river, and is probably connected to a subterranean aquifer. It was a local tradition for people to leap from an overhanging rock face into the Blue Hole. My initial answer to the invitation was, “No, thank you”. However, once the boys swam away, leaving me alone with all the girls, my testosterone got the better of me and I raced to join them. I had a couple of chances to back out, including looking over the 20-foot drop-off, down to the water below. I didn’t use the proper judgment – I wasn’t prudent enough to back out even though I really did not want to jump.

My companions counted to three and we all stepped off the precipice – I instantly regretted my decision. “This was a dumb idea,” I thought as I plummeted to the water below, along with six other boys, all within an arms’ reach of each other. We hit the water so hard, and I went so deep that I nearly ran out of air before I made it back to the surface. There were a hundred things that could have gone wrong, and we were very lucky that no one was hurt. That experience was a great lesson in Prudence for me – that I should listen to my inner voice when it is shouting at me to pay attention

There are other ways to demonstrate Prudence besides deciding not to jump off 20-foot high rocks. The virtue of Prudence is also helpful when making ordinary decisions, such as what to eat for dinner, or whether to accelerate through a yellow traffic light (or not). In fact, it’s the daily small choices that define us far more than the big ones.

Champions Don’t Take Shortcuts

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nfl_lombardi_01The price of success is hard work, dedication to the job at hand, and the determination that whether we win or lose, we have applied the best of ourselves to the task at hand.
Vince Lombardi

I’ve been an athlete my entire life. From Little League, soccer, and football growing up in Texas to intramurals of all sorts in college and the military, athletic competition is a big part of my life. Sports are a great metaphor for life and I’ve gleaned countless leadership lessons from it. In fact, it’s one of the reasons the military uses athletic competition as a training opportunity from entry level (Basic Military Training) to senior executive level (e.g. Air War College). It was the quotable General Douglas MacArthur who shrewdly observed, “On the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that on other days, on other fields will bear the fruits of victory.”

A lesson every successful athlete learns quickly is champions don’t take shortcuts. Sure, an athlete can take performance enhancing drugs or try quick fixes, but those short term wins are usually overshadowed by long term defeats. The true champion, the one who everyone aspires to emulate and sports magazines profile, is the one who did the hard work even when it would’ve been easy not to do it. It’s the one rising before dawn to work out before starting a full day at work or school, then repeating it day after day until they reach their goal. In Texas, many championship high school football programs start their first practice at midnight on the first day the league allows teams to work out. Those coaches know the players who start out with a “do the work” mentality develop into teams who’ll give their all when the time comes.

In short, champions earn their titles long before the title contest in November. They earned their championship at midnight in August under stadium lights.

The same is true in the military. We “sweat in peacetime” so our skills are second nature to us and we can respond quickly under stress. The drills are sometimes fun, but training can be boring if one has to repeat similar tasks over and over. However, everyone is grateful to their trainers for being demanding and requiring them to learn procedures by heart when the stress level is high, because being well trained makes a person confident. To paraphrase the old military maxim: No one rises to the occasion in stressful situations, they sink to the level of their training. That sense of confidence usually carries into high performance.

In the busy and highly competitive world we live in, it’s very tempting for leaders to cut corners to save time or money. I’m here to encourage leaders to resist the urge. Speed in business is essential, but your team is unlikely to have the ability to hit the mark if leaders don’t train, resource, and lead them. Spend the time ensuring your team has the skills they need to get the job you’ve assigned them done. Believe me, time spent in the training room doing quality training will pay off enormously when there’s a crisis or short deadline. A team that’s raised on shortcuts, however, will dissolve into chaos when the pressure is on. In a high-pressure job I had at the Pentagon once, we had a saying: “Speed kills.” It was our way of reminding ourselves to be precise, but taking shortcuts would lead to mistakes we couldn’t afford to make.

Just like Airmen honing their skills or athletes doing conditioning, well-led teams put in the work required to get the job done when the pressure is low. They do that because they know that when they do the preparatory work and training when they need to, they won’t have to try to rely on shortcuts later. Rather, they’ll perform at the same high level they did in practice.

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Be Free – Part II

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Moby_1In Part I, I put forth the idea that “freedom” is not simply doing whatever we want, but doing what’s good and in a way that builds ourselves and others up. To illustrate, we will look at traffic controls which are tools such as traffic signals, signage, speed limits, and pavement markings. Traffic controls restrict the flow of vehicular traffic on roads and highways to comply with specific safety rules and guidelines. A superficial look at traffic controls would imply that traffic controls restrict a driver’s freedom, but the opposite is actually the case.  Imagine how dangerous roads would be without speed limits, signage or lane markings.

What fascinates me about addiction and obsessive behavior is that people would choose an altered state of consciousness that’s toxic and ostensibly destroys most aspects of your normal life, because for a brief moment you feel okay.

– Moby, musician-songwriter

The opposite of freedom is not “just” confinement or restriction. As we will discuss in the next section, Aristotle’s philosophy of the Golden Mean, is that virtue lies in the middle between the extremes of vice.However, with appropriate traffic controls, we have the freedom to safely travel wherever we like. We can feel safe travelling at high speeds on the highway since we know that our fellow motorists will also be following the guidelines ensuring safe travel for all. Appropriate behavioral controls permit us to remain free, and in this case unharmed.

Therefore, on one end of the “freedom continuum” lies slavery, and on the other lies license. Just as slavery is the abuse of freedom to hold another unjustly bound, license likewise is an abuse of freedom since it binds our own will to our appetites or passions. The newspaper is brimming with stories of people who abused their own freedom either through the self-abuse or by allowing others to abuse them. “Excessive freedom” is as much a problem as a complete lack of freedom, and in fact ends up in the same place: slavery. On the ends of the “freedom continuum” is slavery to others and slavery to appetites – both are self-destructive.

As a military officer, I often remind my Airmen that the Air Force doesn’t set standards of behavior to hinder their freedom (i.e., regulations). Rather, we set standards of behavior to keep them safe and healthy, ready to accomplish our mission – to have the defense of our countrymen in our hands is a serious responsibility.

When Airmen violate these standards, leaders must do their duty and hold them accountable – this is justice. Furthermore, being held accountable is actually good for morale. The consequences for violating military standards range from minor to severe, depending on the seriousness of the offense, and always entails some sort of penalty such as a fine, extra duty, or demotion of rank. When others see an offender receive their just deserts for violating the rules or the law, it reinforces their confidence in their leaders and each other.

To summarize, true freedom does not come at someone else’s expense and true freedom doesn’t result from selfishness or self-centeredness. True freedom comes from serving others and respecting both our own and others’ dignity. True freedom enables us to grow as human persons.

Be Free – Part I

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9215883633_0b13a03051_o“Freedom” is a word often misused in our current vocabulary. We view our “freedoms” in such a broad manner that the word sometimes loses its meaning. Particularly in the case of young people, “freedom” is synonymous with “doing whatever I like”, but that’s not authentic freedom. Authentic freedom is being able to choose what’s good for you, and yet remaining unencumbered by things that prevent you from being healthy. In fact, unbounded freedom to do whatever I want whenever I want is not freedom; it is license.

For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.

– Nelson Mandela

It’s really not a radical concept, the idea that freedom is bound by responsibilities and limits; in fact it’s preserved in our system of laws and our notion of justice. We regulate speech and assembly both for the common good and for the individual’s good. People are not permitted to gather for the purpose of fomenting violence, and we don’t allow a person to run into a theater and shout “fire” without just cause. Ideally, our laws are constructed to both protect the common good, and safeguard individual liberty. However, the freedom we enjoy as Americans is not unfettered liberty. We are free but we do not have license to do whatever we want.

Authentic freedom is an individual’s ability to choose what is good without being impeded or bound, be it an internal or external restriction. If an individual’s appetites or another person’s demands prevent the individual from making good choices, then we can objectively say that the individual is not free.

Get Your Copy of The 5 Be’s Today!

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I’m excited to announce my latest title now available in pocketbook from Lead The Way Media!

Logo Cover - FrontIn a world full of “no” and “don’t”, The 5 Be’s For Starting Out is a positive vision of who to “Be.” Based on a lifetime of mentoring young adults, The 5 Be’s is a roadmap to living a healthy, fulfilling, and successful life!

  • Be Proud Of Who You Are: Everyone has something to contribute — and so do you!
  • Be Free: Authentic freedom means having the ability to choose what’s good for you!
  • Be Virtuous: The virtues are the “guardrails” for success in life!
  • Be Balanced:  Keep your Mind, Body, and Spirit nourished to  keep your balance!
  • Be Courageous: Courage comes in many forms: physical and moral courage — find yours!

The 5 Be’s For Starting Out was a huge hit at a recent industry conference, and I’m proud to offer it as a pocketbook. It will also be available as an ebook soon! The 5 Be’s  makes a great stocking stuffer for the young adult in your life–or anyone looking to make a fresh start.

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Excerpt: “The Five Be’s” – My Newest Book Coming in October ’15!

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Five Be's - Facebook banner-001I’m happy to offer you an excerpt from my upcoming book, The Five Be’s, now going through post-production editing enroute to an October publishing date!

“We are what we repeatedly do; excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” – Aristotle

Really, it was not just the Air Force Military Training Instructors who’d told them “don’t”; they’d been hearing that word a great deal throughout their lives.           I stood in front of a group of young Airmen at the First Term Airmen’s Center (FTAC) as they sleepily waited to hear what the old colonel had to say to them. With few exceptions, they were about 19 years old and living away from home for the first time in their lives. They had all volunteered to serve their country in a time of war, most of them in Kindergarten or Elementary School during the 9/11 attacks. Before they appeared in new Air Force blue uniforms in that FTAC classroom, they had been through 12 weeks of Basic Military Trainingfor indoctrination into the Air Force, and Air Force Technical Training to learn the skills each would employ in their Air Force Specialty. For their first six months in the Air Force, they had heard their leaders give them a lot of “don’ts.”

As we raise young people into adulthood, we spend a lot of time setting boundaries.  In fact, most of what young people hear as they grow is a list of “don’t’s.”  When we’re very young, we hear “don’t throw food on the floor”, “don’t speak disrespectfully to your elders”, “don’t take toys away from your friends.”  As we grow, the “don’ts” begin to pile up: don’t play in the street, don’t forget your manners, don’t use bad language, etc. Even in adulthood, we are inundated with “don’ts” regarding our behavior: don’t say those words, don’t wear those clothes,don’t eat this, don’t touch that.

All these “don’ts” form the boundaries of acceptable behavior, and within reason, boundaries are a necessary part of establishing appropriate behavior. Manners, after all, are intended to make everyone comfortable so each person’s dignity and feelings are safeguarded. All human groupings develop norms for behavior each group member is expected to adhere to. They vary in complexity and formality, but norms…boundaries or “don’ts”…are common. Of course, we can overdo boundary setting, and when there are too many boundaries, we call that tyranny.  In general, however, boundaries and standards of behavior (“manners”) are necessary to the function of any human society.

What we generally left unsaid when establishing our group norms is a target to aim at.  It’s not sufficient to merely describe the outside bounds of the target, you also have to show people what the bulls eye looks like.  That’s what this book is all about.

People can function in a world of “do’s and don’ts,” but knowing what to do and what not to do really only describes external behavior. What people, particularly young people, really need is a vision of who we want them to be.  With that vision, people are then empowered to reach for something rather thanavoiding something.

To illustrate that point, imagine the following:

You’re in a pitch black room with the task of finding a door somewhere in the room. What would you do? Most people would find the walls first, feeling their way slowly around the walls until they find the door, then opening the door to exit. But what if the door were a trap door in the floor? Or a staircase in the center of the room? What if there’s no walls or the walls give way when you push on them? Simply being told there’s a door in the room isn’t enough information to find the door. You have even less chance if the walls are missing or not firm enough to help guide you. Giving a person a vision of who we want them to be is like turning on an exit light in the room. The light illuminates the exit and gives you a direction to walk. It could even be bright enough to illuminate the entire room.

What this little thought experiment illustrates is the need for both boundaries and a target: standards of behavior and a positive vision of who we want to be.

That’s what I wanted to give those bright young Airmen at FTAC: a positive vision of who I want them to be. A vision of a person who is healthy and integrated, balanced and free. the kind of person who can be as proud of themselves and who they are as we are of them. I wanted to give them a vision to aim at, so they could grow into the kind of people others would follow.

And now I offer that same vision of who I wanted them to be to you. It’s the kind of person I want to be as well.


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Watch for my newest title, The Five Be’s, in October 2015!!

My book, Leading Leaders, is available at the Lulu StoreAmazon, iTunes, and Barnes & Noble.