One of the downsides to being married to someone whose default demeanor is one of kindness is that I seldom hear things I probably should. And while what I wear really shouldn't make anyone else's radar screen of importance, I have been known to be somewhat oblivious to fashion. Now, I won't wear spandex, or a halter top, and for sure I'll leave those even more oblivious to fashion to rock the romper (If you don’t know what that is, check the image). However, I have gone out in things that, had I passed a mirror before heading out of the house, I may have tightened up a bit.
Recently I sat with a friend (that would be you Kevin) reminiscing mostly about our time at sea, and he recounted how he would stand in front of a mirror and yell at himself, rather than taking it out on one of his shipmates when things didn’t go as planned. His point was that many times he had no one but himself to blame for something gone awry. He also knew how damaging his temper could be, so he elected to direct his anger at himself. Doing this served multiple purposes. It spared his officers his wrath, it certainly injected humor into an otherwise very uncomfortable experience, but most importantly, he could see how ridiculous he looked and sounded. Call it a sound check of sorts.
So all this got me thinking about the power of the mirror. Now I know that without self-awareness the mirror might only fuel a warped perspective, rather than calibrate a mind gone wild. But think about the things you might not have said or done had you had access to a mirror. Remember Judge Reinhold in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (I’m referring to his actions when he saw his attire in his rearview mirror).
Like many people in America, I love the fall and the whole football experience, with one exception: I hate the antics of the coaches. Watching them lose all self-control as they tear into a player, an official, or even another coach is reprehensible. So before this upcoming season begins, I'd like to propose that at least one, maybe two, full-length mirrors be placed behind the bench on each sideline. Heck, maybe we should have three: one for the coaching staff, one for the players, and even one for the officials. Rather than going ballistic on a referee or a player, the coach could go to the mirror and yell at themselves for calling the play that led to the poor result. I’m assuming the coaches for the Seattle Seahawks are great guys, and I’ve certainly never walked in their shoes, but before sending in “Shotgun, fake 31, quick slant right” (or whatever that play is called), the responsible coach should have looked in the mirror while calling the play so that the guy looking back at him could have said: What, are you nuts! Give the ball to Marshawn.
I am certainly not suggesting that every decision we make be cleared through the person in the mirror. Being bold, sometimes reckless, and even wrong has led to some positive, life-changing experiences or discoveries. I mean, had I looked in the mirror before asking out my wife, it’s a safe bet we wouldn’t be married now. Or if the referee who famously determined Dez’ catch wasn’t a catch had tried that call out in the mirror before heading back on to the field, the NFL wouldn’t have re-evaluated the “football move” definition. (I’m not certain that’s even resolved now.)
Photo credit to ACED Designs, from Vogue.com
My Dad was someone I never argued with. Mom, on the other hand, seemed to love a good debate. She was never loud or nasty during our verbal jousting; never ending an argument with a “just because I said so.” She’d hear me out; sometimes even seeing my point of view. However, Dad never endured more than a few seconds of my whining. Instead he’d simply shake his head and say: “You can’t put an old man’s head, on a young man’s shoulders.” Once those words left his mouth the discussion was over. If you’ve ever seen a Pug cock its head trying to understand your words, then for sure you can picture my expression when Dad would utter those words.
However, by my mid-twenties those words began to have an impact on my thinking. Things that once seemed obscure became obvious, and although it wasn’t like having a light come on all at once in my head, I found more and more things reminding me of my father's words.
As I approached my tour aboard Arleigh Burke the enlightenment with respect to alcohol was full and bright. So much so, that it was tough for me to not look back at my life as a leader and parent without feeling like a complete hypocrite. By that time I had lost a roommate to drugged driving, had another close friend paralyzed as a result of his drunk driving, lost two shipmates to alcohol facilitated events, been arrested myself for drunk driving (I pleaded guilty because there was absolutely no question about that), and knew of multiple other “six degree” alcohol fueled accidents to friends of friends.
My hypocrisy came in the sense that over the course of my life and career prior to Arleigh Burke I had only recently seen the connection between my duty to my people (and family), and my sobriety. That if I truly cared about my people, I should be able to respond to a phone call from them at any time. I realized that all those times going out as a junior officer my only guideline from my chain of command regarding my conduct was; don’t do anything stupid. And even with that broad range of acceptable behavior, I still violated that one, simple standard. In short, my willingness to drink to the point of impairment undermined my commitment to my sailors.
Once I made the connection between responsible drinking and my duty as an officer and a parent it was effortless to not drink at all. In fact, I employed a strategy I first adopted in college where on days we ran intervals (I ran collegiate track and cross country) I would mentally prepare myself prior to practice for the grind of that practice. It made those workouts so much easier. So later in my career applying that same approach to activities that included alcohol made it painless to not drink. It was amazing how uncomplicated it was to transition from a drinker to a non-drinker, and for the first time I truly felt like I understood what it meant to care about my shipmates and family.
I only asked my officers to be responsible with their drinking. It was up to them decide what that meant. I elected not to extend the same expectation to my crew because I knew that due to their age and inexperience, many would fall short, and I didn’t want alcohol to be the ship’s main focus. However, I did make them aware of my views on the subject of alcohol and duty.
It’s way too late for me to know if my young shoulders could have handled such a perspective at a greener age, but I do wish someone, somewhere along the way would have tried to put that old man’s head on my young shoulders. Knowing how I always listened to my father, I’d like to think that concept would have impacted my life and the lives of some friends in positive ways. At least now though, I’m sharing the thoughts in my head in the hope that, if not today, perhaps someday they’ll feel good on your shoulders.
Me, Dad and my brother (1972)
I’d like to believe that everyone will one day in their life realize the truth of their own thoughts and have the confidence to trust them. That time when we no longer need affirmation of our every word. I’m certainly not suggesting that even when we reach that time that we close our minds to debate, only that we should all reach that time when we don’t feel like we have to be apologetic or overly guarded regarding expressing our thoughts.
Although I had been working on that confidence for years, that time truly arrived for me as I progressed through my training pipeline enroute to assume command of USS Arleigh Burke. But it wasn’t from a Navy instructor or even a formal class; rather it was in a private conversation with a new friend; a Special Forces (Green Beret) Colonel who took me aside for the sole reason that he understood the magnitude of the responsibilities inherent in military command and he felt obligated to share with me the single most important aspect of my development. But it wasn’t that I be courageous, or selfless, (things this man had in abundance) it was that I needed to embrace the fact that I had reached the point in my life where I didn’t have to apologize or be overly humble about those things I just knew to be true. As he had been many times in his career, he knew I’d be in situations that required split second clarity and he knew that without the self-confidence in myself to trust those things I’d learned throughout the previous years of my life, people would die or my ship could be knocked out of action.
This man, this Green Beret, knew that one thing every leader; no, every person, should realize sometime in their life; that things are as they are without needing to show or cite a reference. Knowing now the extensive training Army Special Forces undergo to wear the Green Beret (my son is in the throes of that training now), I have no doubt he took one look at me and knew I didn’t yet have that confidence. But rather than doing nothing, he pulled me aside and with only a few words convinced me to at last grab hold of that one thing because he knew without it, I'd likely fail those I was privileged to serve.
Realizing that one thing was the best thing that's ever happened in my life, because it allowed me to subjugate the instinctively humble side of my psyche to the side of it that knew what was right but sometimes lacked the confidence to say or do something about it.
The day I posted my first blog, my friend, Colonel Bill Davis, called me. I hadn't talked with Bill in months due to his battle with injuries incurred in combat decades ago. But he just knew I needed to hear his voice.
Thanks for joining in.
Before I retired from the military and joined the civilian workforce, I mentally prepared myself for some adjustments. I wondered how I'd adjust to a slower, more forgiving pace. Or how I'd manage to get beyond that uneasy feeling we all have when the voice in our mind tells us that things are simply too quiet. However, as it turned out, the only real adjustment I had to make was one I had never considered: that people would now treat me differently based on what they saw.
While on active duty and in uniform, it wasn’t unusual for people to go way beyond the normal salutation to show their deference. In fact, I’d wager a bet that if I was approaching an entrance to a building and the person in front of me saw me coming, they’d hold that door for a good thirty feet or more before I made it to the door. They’d say "excuse me" if they stepped in front of me, or they’d walk behind, rather than between, me and a friend talking in the passageway.
But the moment my uniform came off, people who had never met me before wouldn’t hold the door open for me if I was two feet behind them. They’d step on my shoes as they walked to their seat without so much as a whisper of “excuse me.” It made me realize the disappointing fact that, besides the lack of common decency in people these days, there is a very real bias in not simply what people see, but more importantly what they think and do.
When I was in the military, I never questioned the boundaries of a friendship because of a person’s skin color, gender, religious beliefs, or some other ideology. Maybe I was naïve to think that because I didn’t see the differences between us, that those differences didn’t exist. Maybe the differences didn’t exist because our friendships were formed through common sacrifice and suffering. Assumptions about a person's sacrifice didn't have to be made because we all saw and understood the benefits of our communal effort. Suppositions about anything else a person may be were irrelevant; at least I thought they were.
But now that I am no longer in the military I see those differences. And I’m forced to make assumptions, or at least have questions, that I never had before. When I was in the military, if I heard someone say they didn’t see color, I believed them. But now I don’t. I think many people do see color? And because of that, here’s the sad truth of what I think today when I see someone different than me: I think of someone who has likely experienced the ugly underbelly of our society many times in their life. I think of someone who has taught themselves (or has been taught by their parents) to deal with that prejudice. I also wonder how close our friendship can ever be? Will they judge me based on my color, or will they afford me a clean slate on which I can write the feelings in my heart? Do I even have the right to hope for that, let alone expect that grace from them?
I truly hope we can move from the place we are today to a place where people don't cherry pick from studies to support a conclusion they have already reached. Where we share opinions with genuine give-and-take and a sincere desire to see both sides. I want ours to again be a society where people first seek to understand a difference, rather than criticize or ridicule that difference. I want people to hold the door for me again, not because I look the same as them, but because they don't notice I'm different.
I don't know about you, but I tend to do my best thinking when I'm working in the yard. When I was in the navy, it was always while on the bridge wing where I seemed to find the most clarity. Sometimes amidst the sweat rolling into my eyes I imagine being gracious in defeat after I miss a putt that would have won the British Open, being happier for someone else's good fortunate, than I'd be disappointed that the victory wasn't mine to cherish. Which is an odd thing for me to imagine since I'm terrible at golf. Or I imagine knowing just the right words to convince my children to judge their worth based on their contribution to the world not the size of their paycheck. Or as I did this morning I think we need to have a self-awareness month.
So I came inside to start working on those thoughts only to learn that September has already been designated Self-awareness month. Heck, I didn't even know that's really what Ramadan is all about. The self-awareness month was so eye-opening I decided to see what other worthy causes had a month set aside for their focus only to learn there are nearly 400 causes we feel are worthy of remembering. Peppered around some of what I consider to be worthy causes (e.g. autism, homeless and hunger, march into literacy month, sexual assault prevention, to name a few) are months to appreciate or celebrate hamburgers, bar-be-que, shopping cart return, Blondie and Deborah Harry, and Bathroom Reading. Now don't get me wrong, I love bar-be-que but a month of showing my appreciation for it probably wouldn't be good for me. Believe it or not, I don't need a reminder to take my shopping cart back to the supermarket, or a "pull my sofa off the wall" month, or even an Ideas month (remember that's what my backyard is for), but what I do need is a self-reflection and self-awareness five minutes a day month.
I think Jim Valano had it right when among other things he said that every day we should laugh, we should think and we should have our emotions moved to tears, because maybe if I do that I'll remember without being reminded of the important issues that need remembering. I'll appreciate the health I have to more fully enjoy each moment. I'll remember my two roommates who died, one to drugs (December is Drunk and Drugged Driving Month) and the other to defense of our country (May is Military Appreciation Month). I'll remember a close childhood friend who died of AIDS (November is AIDS Awareness Month), or my wife who survived Breast Cancer (October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month). Others I'll just have to get over not remembering; potty training and preparation for Kindergarten months are past and opening for me I'm afraid.
Today's post marks the beginning of what I hope will be a long exchange of thoughts, ideas, and experiences leading to positive change in the world. Perhaps a Quixotic ideal, but definitely worth the shot.
If you join this dialogue, you’ll see that I have some views, both long-held and recently discovered, that mean a great deal to me. Views that I believe are important in order to affect a healthy debate that may lead to understanding.
What you won't get from me are my thoughts on things of which I know little to nothing: battlefield courage, distributed lethality, military uniform preferences, or tattoos. However, what you will get are my unfiltered, unapologetic observations of what it means to care about others more than myself, and my journey of self-reflection and discovery in the quest of creating better teams and better environments.
My book, Honor Held Dear, was born out of my need to continue changing mindsets and culture, as I'd like to think I did on active duty naval service. My self-imposed ground rules for writing this book were simple: acknowledging my role in my failures, as well as refraining from axe grinding, taking credit for things I didn't do, disparaging others, and denigrating the efforts of my predecessors. In my mind, that last rule is one of the most basic tenets of leadership: don't talk poorly about those who came before you.
In fact, one of the observations made to me regarding my book was that I made following my own path look too easy; there were no consequences to my decisions to stand by my code. While that observation is certainly valid, it couldn't be further from the truth. I choose not to discuss those consequences because doing so, even though I still feel I was right in every case, would have only presented my side of the story, and also because revealing the details publicly would have brought those people some embarrassment.
Provided this isn't my first and only blog entry, there'll be plenty of time to talk about the deeper subjects. For now I'd like to offer a glimpse into my childhood and that cross-roads town community that shaped my perspective. (Search Google Earth for Rawlinsville, Pennsylvania if you're curious.)
From Honor Held Dear: "I gathered myself up out of the water and bent over at the waist, bracing my hands on my knees and wondering what in the heck had just happened. It wasn’t even 6:00 a.m., I had been out of bed for less than an hour, had already lost one of my front teeth, come seconds away from being mauled by a desperate, pissed-off raccoon, and escaped being shot by my brother by a matter of inches. My clothes were soaked from the icy cold water and we still had more than a hundred muskrat traps to check. Quite a morning for a fifth grader, I’d say. Eddie was safe, dry, and completely oblivious to the danger we’d been in. And Mom and Dad were probably sound asleep back home. As we rode our bikes from the woods to the pasture where our muskrat traps were set, I once again felt the sting of cold air on what remained of my broken tooth. I passed the time riding wondering what Mom would say when she saw that one of perfectly straight front teeth was two-thirds gone."
Thanks for taking a look.