The Dearth of Competency

The everyday headlines about the lack of competence in our schools, churches, government, and organizations and institutions shake our confidence and belief that anyone can get things done right. Our personal and national zest for greatness appears exhausted and almost everywhere we look we see decline threaten our democracy and way of life.

Incompetence surrounds us. I fought for excellence and against incompetence at all levels throughout my 18 year career at the Star Tribune newspaper. Organizations were designed to keep good people down and the design works well. But excellence can be achieved even in such an enterprise, exhausting as it is.

I left the newspaper industry in 1994 to join a movement to transform how we work and lead in organizations. For 13 years I continued my battle against mediocrity. I met many wonderful people. But few excellent leaders or supervisors. Disengaged employees intimidated good employees and made excellence a crime punishable by threats, ridicule, and rejection. Today, twenty years after I joined the transformation movement, leadership and management and workplace cultures are more primitive than ever. Our organizations and institutions are too large and responsibility diffuse. Few hold others accountable.

But not all we label incompetence is incompetence. We sometimes expect too much of people, especially when they are learning new skills and information and doing new things or implementing new projects. We want our fixes to be fast, easy, cheap, and painless. That is magical thinking and not possible.

Change and new projects have learning curves and their implementations are often messy, inefficient, and people make mistakes. In new environments people must plan, act, reflect, and adapt constantly. Sometimes we need to remember that the chaos we experience is normal and the chaos of newness comes to order and it does so quickly. We need the wisdom to know the difference between genuine incompetence and the mistakes of change and newness and cut people some slack and give them time to get things right in new and difficult circumstances.

We like to blame others for our incompetence: worker incompetence is the fault of leaders; incompetent students are the fault of teachers. The problems of government agencies are the fault of President Obama. But the continuum from incompetent to excellence is a personal choice not the fault of someone else. I am responsible for my mediocrity or excellence.

Excellence isn’t just about work. Each of us—whatever our age, talents, and place in life–can choose where we want to be on the continuum from incompetence to excellence and in what areas of our lives—physical, emotional, intellectual, occupational, or character, creativity, or relationship excellence, for example.

Those who strive for their unique excellence in life work hard. They do not look for magic, quick-fixes, rescues by heroes, or something for nothing. They take responsibility for themselves, exhibit tenacity and moral courage, follow their own paths, and create their own lives. They understand that happiness comes from the pursuit of noble goals. And they renew themselves and find new sources of energy and spirit many times over the course of a lifetime. We should honor people for the excellence they display, not for their job title. I respect an excellent plumber more than an incompetent publisher.

Those who choose continual growth, learning, and self-discovery in pursuit of the person they could be rise above the mediocrity that surrounds them despite the difficulty.

Moral Courage

A man wrote me:

The seduction of the hiring process convinced me I had arrived in an organization that would embrace my methods. A place I thought my heart and talents could finally grow and flourish. I offered too much of myself unprotected and was “wacked” into reality.

I watched as the president of the company berated, humiliated, and then fired a good and stable sales representative. He did this in front of all the employees of the company. I sat and squirmed in my seat, metaphorically visualizing the owner shooting a hostage in the head to instill fear and ultimate control over the rest of us. The president noticed my discomfort. He asked, in a threatening manner, if I wanted to stay with the company. I felt compelled to quit on the spot, which I did. I managed to speak my mind a little as I left. I am now home, unemployed and recovering. (I wrote this man’s story in an essay entitled, Bearing Witness).

This story exemplifies moral courage: doing what you believe is right in the face of loss, criticism, rejection, or retaliation.

Over 18 years in many leadership and change agent roles at the Star Tribune newspaper and 13 years as a consultant to leaders of dysfunctional organizations, people tested my commitment to my values many times. The decision to stand up for my values was sometimes painful, and I wrestled with self-doubt at times. But I had vowed to live a value driven life, and I believed in value driven leadership. The values my parents had taught me were deepened and solidified as a young Secret Service agent where I experienced the might of ethics, excellence, and purpose and as a lost soul in a tough alcohol treatment center where I came to believe that my life depended on a value driven life.

I abhor rankism, dishonesty, disrespect, unfairness, mediocrity, and irresponsibility. I value respect, justice, fairness, integrity, excellence, and responsibility. I never thought of myself as having moral courage: I tried to be a good person and leader and fought through my anxiety and fears to do what I believed was right the best way I knew how.

Acting from our values often comes at a cost. I know well the fear of losing a job, and the loss of status and relationships along with humiliation and marginalization. It takes courage to stand alone in danger, to defy the unwritten rules, to illuminate the dark side, and to go against the cultural grain.

Why take the risks of moral courage at all? I do it to support values and to live an honest and authentic life and to do what I can to make the world  healthier and more ethical. And to stand up for those with less power and to go against the villains of our world. I do it so I can like myself. Aristotle said we become brave by doing brave acts. Think of moral courage as a muscle that grows stronger with use.

Robert Greenleaf, author of Servant Leadership, wrote that the problem in the world is not the evil, lazy, crazy, immature, disrespectful, and irresponsible people. They have been with us forever. The problem is the good people who have gone to sleep. We live surrounded by the need for moral courage to stand up to abuse, injustice, dishonesty, willful ignorance, the ism’s of the world, and the lack of compassion.

Moral courage may be the most needed courage in the 21st century and the mark of personal maturity and true leadership.

 

 

 

Abuse: A Symptom of How We Raise Boys

The Adrian Peterson switching case led to a broad discussion of corporal punishment in America. The Ray Rice case led to greater awareness of domestic abuse. The recent story of hazing and sexual abuse in the locker room of the Sayreville, NJ boy’s high school football team shocked a community and led to the cancellation of the remainder of the season.

A deeper common theme resides below the surface in each of these stories: How we raise boys in America.

Joe Ehrmann, minister and former Baltimore Colts football star wrote, “All these problems I’ve been trying to deal with, they’re not just problems, they’re also symptoms. They’re symptoms of the single biggest failure of our society: We simply don’t do a good enough job of teaching boys how to be men.”

I grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s, a typical middle class American boy: Sports mostly, school less so, buddies, and later girls. I learned from family,coaches, teachers, neighbors, and older boys the rules of masculinity and how to create the false and unhealthy facade Joe Ehrmann wrote about in his book, Inside Out Coaching: Strength, silence, stoicism, and emotional denial and disconnection—warmth withheld, hearts disconnected from heads, and failure not allowed. Terrence Real wrote in How Can I Get Through to You: “I have come to believe that violence is boyhood socialization. Disconnection is masculinity.” Boys who resist the rules of masculinity get belittled, bullied, and beat up.

I began to drink in college and the disease of alcoholism moved fast for me. My dad got me into a tough alcoholic treatment center and saved my life. The counselors broke down my defenses. Staff and patients gave me painful feedback all day, every day, for a month. I explored my values, thought about my purpose in life, and shared my personal inventory with a priest.

I began to learn to be emotionally self-aware, how to experience and understand my feelings, and how to connect with others. I felt the power of love and a sense of community in treatment that I’d never felt before. I wanted to live and to feel alive and left the treatment center scared and committed to a value-driven life. Treatment rescued me from a false self and the unhealthy rules of manhood, and I began the life-long journey to greater authenticity.

I’ve spent the past 40 years on a quest to learn and evolve not as a man but as a human being. On this journey, I’ve wrestled with the beliefs I was taught—mostly subtle and unconscious–about money, career, success, control, conformity, competition, masculinity, and relationships. I realized that most of what I had learned about masculinity and being a man is wrong. Moral courage, excellence, authenticity, human connection, and personal responsibility became important values I strive to live my life by—always imperfectly.

Ehrmann wrote that life is about relationships and purpose. He encourages boys to ask, “What is the core purpose of my life, why am I here?” and to think about the kind of son, brother, husband, father, friend, and neighbor they want to be.

American is in dire need of mature and healthy men who can put violence aside: Men who know what they feel and are able to express their emotions appropriately. We need men of strength—even ruthlessness in honesty and decision-making at times–who can also be caring and compassionate. We need kind and gentle men with empathy who can lead with tough-love  and hold others accountable. We need men of great moral courage who can tell the truth and stand up to the evil and dysfunction around them.

To raise boys differently, we must become aware of the unwritten rules of masculinity and change them and the ways we engage with young boys. Grown men who find the old rules insufficient for a meaningful life must embark on a journey of personal introspection and transformation. Personal evolution to become a more complete human being is difficult. Those who deny the journey as “touchy–feely” are saying, “This stuff scares me.”  Courage is required.

The goal isn’t to turn men into women but for men to become more alive and whole.

 

I recommend: Season of Life by Jeffrey Marx and Inside Out Coaching by Joe Ehrmann.   Visit: CoachforAmerica.com

Red Rock

(Click to enlarge)

Arches National Park

Arches National Park

Monument Valley

Monument Valley

Monument Valley

Monument Valley

Lower Antelope Canyon near Page, AZ

Lower Antelope Canyon near Page, AZ

Zion National Park

Zion National Park

Sedona, AZ

Sedona, AZ

Red Rock Canyon near Bryce Canyon

Red Rock Canyon near Bryce Canyon

Bryce Canyon, Utah

Bryce Canyon, Utah

Bryce Canyon

Bryce Canyon

Rainbow Bridge on Lake Powell

Rainbow Bridge on Lake Powell

Lake Powell, AZ

Lake Powell, AZ

Wauweap Marina, Page, AZ

Wahweap Marina, Page, AZ

Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon

Arches National Park near Moab, Utah

Arches National Park near Moab, Utah

 

Trouble in the Secret Service

This post appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune Sunday Opinion Page on October 12, 2014

Drunken Secret Service operatives bring prostitutes to foreign hotels, fight with them over money, and pass out in the hallways. A man breaches many levels of security and gets into the White House while White House police officers stand by with dogs restrained and guns silent. A man with an automatic weapon fires on the White House. Bullets hit its exterior and supervisors tell officers to stand down because the shots were gangs fighting. An officer disagrees but remains silent, afraid of criticism. A maid discovers the bullet damage days later. Such behaviors and incompetence reflect a complacent and fearful group of agents and officers without leadership and moral courage and an agency in decline that puts the security of the President and others at risk.

I served as a Special Agent in the U.S. Secret Service in the late 1960’s. I felt proud to be an agent and believed in the work I did whether chasing counterfeiters in Chicago or protecting the president in the White House. I stayed in the Secret Service for three years and always felt grateful for the experience of working with proud people who served a noble purpose passionately.

I was young and inexperienced and my time too long ago for me to be able to contrast the Secret Service then with the agency of today.

But I can raise concerns and questions as an organizational and leadership consultant:

I wonder what effect the haphazard creation of the Homeland Security Department had on the identity of the Secret Service and its purpose to protect the president of the United States. Should the Secret Service return to the Treasury Department to regain its focus?

I like to say, “It’s always about leadership.” What went wrong with the leaders of this once revered agency? Once an organization slides into decline, which the Secret Service has, leaders have lost credibility. The director has resigned. The top echelon of the Secret Service also needs to go and those leaders at the Special Agent in Charge level need to be evaluated.

The agency has grown by thousands of employees. Has the quality of special agents and White House police officers declined? What has made them fearful to act? Agents and officers need to trust and have faith in their leaders in order to be bold and aggressive in their actions.

What role does politics play in these humiliating failures? Do political folks in the White House tell the Secret Service when to turn alarms off, leave doors unlocked, and not to release the dogs because an innocent person may be hurt? I led many organizations in my career that were in decline. In each of them, the tail wagged the dog and that had to be turned around before the organization could be renewed.

Does Congress provide quality oversight of Homeland Security and the Secret Service? Does the dysfunction of Congress infect the Secret Service and other agencies?

People in the Secret Service deserve strong, tough-love leadership. The new leader, hopefully from outside the agency, must renew the Secret Service by reinvigorating the noble purpose of the Secret Service, regaining the trust of the agents and officers, and clarifying roles and responsibilities of agents, officers, and White House political staff.

Pride, strong leadership, and moral courage must once again flow through the ranks.