The Moral Compass

The Civil War started in Missouri. 40 years before anyone fired a shot, the state’s admission into the Union as a slave state drew a literal line in the dirt between states in which 19th century human slavery would be allowed and where it wouldn’t. It was the “Missouri Compromise”. It allowed Maine into the Union as a free state to counter the addition of slave state Missouri. It also drew a north-south border in the Louisiana Territory marking which future states would be allowed to own slaves. It was a political solution to a moral problem. And so, began the game of maintaining the delicate political balance to ensure that American slavery would never be legislated away.

In 1850, California played along. When Congress couldn’t find a slave state to pair her with, the California Legislature promised to send one pro-slavery senator to congress in perpetuity to balance things out. In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act did away with all of it and allowed both Kansas and Nebraska to vote for themselves on the legality of bondage within their borders. Slaves, of course, didn’t get to vote.

More political solutions. More slavery.

Democracy couldn’t rid us of slavery. Only war could do that.

When that war started there was a star on both flags for Missouri. She had two governments. She sent soldiers to fight for both sides. And when it ended, like most of the rest of America, she was assimilated back into the Union, open wounds and all.

In an America as divided as we’ve been in a long time, perhaps it’s fitting that our nation’s most historically divided state is keenly relevant again in our perpetual shouting match between personal liberty and racial equality. The protests and rioting in response to police violence against African Americans started in Fergusson, Missouri. Members of the University of Missouri football team went on strike in 2015, demanding the resignation of the university president in response to a rash of racially motivated incidents.

This summer, the NAACP issued a travel advisory for minorities traveling to Missouri in response to a recent bill signed into law making it harder to pursue claims of racism in Missouri courts. This past weekend, protests and violence continued in St. Louis in response to the acquittal of another police officer who shot and killed another African American man after a police chase.

The beat of racial tension in Missouri goes on.

There’s something else worth paying attention to in Missouri though. At least for me there is. It’s the governor.

It’s been about 13 years since I’ve been in the same room with Missouri Governor Eric Greitens. He was a SEAL. I wasn’t but we served together. We had the same job as small boat detachment commanders in the Naval Special Warfare community. Our teams trained and prepared to deploy together. Mine was diverted to a different location at the last minute. The planned deployment together never happened. For about a year though, I spent most days at work with then Ensign Greitens.

The intellectual gap between Eric Greitens and most elected officials today is broad. He’s a Rhodes Scholar with a PhD in Refugee Studies from Oxford. My observation squares with that reputation. In our downtime, on travel, all I ever saw him do was read books. So I tried to keep up by reading the same books. It’s not unreasonable to say that I owe some of the intellectual curiosity that drives the content on this site to our time working together.

Greitens took some heat during the election for claims that he exaggerated his service record. I won’t get into the details of it. There’s plenty online if you want to see for yourself. All I can say is that for the two years that we were a part of the same group, he did professionally exactly what he said he did publicly. Beyond that, I have no idea. When it comes to a man’s service, I don’t comment on anything I didn’t see myself. And I’m wary of those who do. It’s not material to my point anyway. So I’ll move on.

Greitens wasn’t shy about his principles when we worked together. That’s actually one of the things he got some heat for. He pulled me aside after a training evolution in which he felt my team had been sloppy and unsafe to give me give me an earful about being the moral compass for my men. I was new to the community. I knew the rules but not the norms. In leadership, especially when you’re new, the space between the rules and the norms are where trouble grows. The faster you learn to live there, the better. And I hadn’t yet. So he made sure I knew it. I was two grades senior to him at the time. And he didn’t have to do it. So it took some stones.

And that’s material to my point.

When no one was looking, with nothing to gain, Eric Greitens told me that leadership was about being the moral compass for those being led. Not bluster, not tough talk, not “telling it like it is.”

He didn’t write it in a book and sell it. He told it to me, one leader to another.

There’s a lot of opinions that people have about Governor Greitens. Most of mine is based on that exchange. That was a long time ago. But that flicker of purpose usually doesn’t go dark easily.

The American people have never been more in need of a leader to model principled leadership. We’ve traveled unimaginable physical and ideological distances just for a glimpse of something that looks like strength in hopes that there’s something more than just that. Because we innately know that leadership is about more than strength. It’s the understanding that strength alone isn’t enough. It’s the willingness to show generous orthodoxy in the balance between the charter of protecting the rule of law and understanding the long painful history of a people crushed under the weight it.

It’s about being the moral compass.

14 years and a lifetime of living after he gave it to me, I’ll throw that aspirational advice the Governor once gave me back over to him. Because all eyes are watching. And within the conflict of never ending racial friction, there’s a chance to show America what leadership looks like.

We’ve never needed it more.

1 reply »

  1. I had been an admirer of Eric Greitens before he entered politics. His books The Heart and the Fist and Resilience deeply impressed me and I often thought “this is the type of leader we need in office”.

    Full disclosure: I consistently vote Democratic, but have refused to vote for Democrats that I thought were unqualified, and would like to think that I would vote for an exceptional leader regardless of party. And the election of Donald Trump has certainly made me think long and hard about the importance of considering the character of the individual candidate over party.

    As a result, when Greitens entered politics, even though as a Republican, I was excited and hoped that he would set a new standard, and raise the leadership bar, which is sorely needed in our country.

    However, I cannot reconcile the person who ran and won as Governor of Missouri with the person I thought he was.