I’ve asked myself a lot of hard questions since November 8th. That’s the day I learned the limitations of my understanding of America’s political landscape. I asked myself, what now? That answer was pretty straight forward. We hope for the best. And stand up for those who need it from whatever comes next. I asked myself what I’m afraid of. That answer was pretty straight forward too. I’m afraid of the atrophy and political paralysis of the organizations put in place to protect us from an unsteady hand on the wheel of our government and our defense and our foreign policy. I’ve asked myself what the people who supported him wanted, above all else. That one was the easiest. They wanted change. And they were willing to pay a high cost to get it. Whether or not we’re going to get it, is a question for the future. Before we dive into it for real though, a few days from now, there’s another question worth asking. It’s this:
What happens, if it works?
It’s a hard question to answer. Because works is a subjective term. If your car worked like your investment portfolio worked, which is to say, most of the time, you’d fire your mechanic. But what if we took the subjectivity out of it? What if we set the bar nice and low; a place we’d all agree on. What if we asked the question like this: What if Donald J. Trump is president of the United States for the next eight years. And what if we’ve realized some change and avoided World War III and managed not to ignite global stability? What if those that feel at risk—women, minorities, same sex couples, poor people, immigrants—don’t get rounded up and sent to reservations or lose the rights or benefits that they have as they know them now? What if eight years from now, Trump’s administration is just like Obama’s. Somewhat divisive, but in power during a period of relative stability and focused improvement that only political opponents can say was downright terrible with a straight face. What if that happens? Shouldn’t we be ok with that among all possible outcomes?
The answer for that one is still pretty straight forward for me. It’s no. And the reason is because it came with a price tag that was too high. And that price tag was our definition of personal leadership. A few decades ago, I walked into Alumni Hall at the United States Naval Academy and joined the great class of 1999. To say that my experience there was formative would be an understatement. It’s an institution whose mission is etched in stone, literally, on the campus and figuratively on the soul of every graduate that ever survived that crucible, myself included.
“To develop Midshipmen morally, mentally and physically and to imbue them with the highest ideals of duty, honor and loyalty in order to graduate leaders who are dedicated to a career of naval service and have potential for future development in mind and character to assume the highest responsibilities of command, citizenship and government.”
Morally, mentally, physically.
Duty, honor, character, loyalty, responsibility, citizenship.
Those words are the building blocks for a way of living and leading. They’re worth their weight in gold. Not long after we graduated, my class went off to war. Time and time again, I saw the delivery of that mission pay off. I’ve served under SEAL Team commanders, guided missile destroyer captains and Green Berets. After I left that life I worked for Fortune 100 CEOs and industry leaders. Some of them never stepped foot in Annapolis or ever once read that mission. But it felt like they had. Because leadership isn’t created by the words that describe it. It’s a common natural truth that requires personal characteristics that make it possible. It’s damn hard to make people follow you to where the greater good needs them to go no matter what the cost to them. But that’s what leadership takes.
Eight years from now, no matter where we are as a nation, I’m not willing to change my definition of the non-negotiables of leadership. I’m not willing to say that a leader criticizes in public and compliments only when it benefits them. I’m not willing to say that a leader takes credit for the success but delegates failure to others. I’m not willing to say that strength is defined by how viciously you respond to criticism. I’m not willing to say that the weak are fair game for ridicule instead of anything other than my best efforts to protect them. I’m not willing to say that showmanship is more important than substance. And I’m not willing to say that the modern American leadership mantra is Donald J. Trump.
Not long ago, I shook hands with my commanding officer on the tarmac of an airfield in San Diego. His only words were “Bring them back Sean. All of them.” Then I waved goodbye to my wife and kids and got on a C-17 to Iraq. That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But I would have done harder, if he’d asked me to. I would have laid down in traffic if that’s what he told me my team needed. Because I know he wouldn’t ask me unless he had to. And I know he’d do it himself for me, if he could. Because our relationship was based on the trust that he valued the greater good above all. And he valued himself after everything else.
I don’t know much about the future. But I know there’s very few of us who believe that of our incoming president. If for no other reason that he’s gone out of his way to show us otherwise when others perhaps at least tried. And I don’t know that he’s had to ask anyone to follow him into the darkness for the greater good of others. But we’re about to find out what happens when he does. And even if it works, it’s up to all of us to insist it’s the exception. And not the new norm.
So what if it works?
If the price we pay is our notion of leadership as a culture, then the price was far too high.