We are not Master of the Universe

In my younger years, I might have been termed an “angry young man.” I was not always mad or unhappy, I just got (extremely) frustrated when things got out of “my control.” This was consistent with my philosophy of leadership. “Things don’t happen spontaneously. They only get done when someone stands up and makes it their mission to do it.” It requires ardent effort that may leave little time for the “niceties.” This is reflective of the motto of the Army’s Infantry School at Fort Benning: “Follow Me.”

When I was a junior officer in West Germany during the Cold War, we believed that there was a credible threat that the Soviets would cross the border. It had only been 35 years since the end of the Second World War and less than twenty since the Berlin Wall went up. We took training seriously and I was often a harsh task master. One learns much about human nature under such circumstances.

I found that while soldiers want to be part of a team (their “tribe”), they don’t automatically do things that are strenuous or demanding. It requires someone to lead, to direct them from the front. The leader has to set the example. They must rise up when it is dangerous. They must be conspicuous in harsh conditions. You can demand performance from your troops, but only if you demonstrate competence and courage to them. Often it is sheer force of will that wins the day.

Unfortunately, there is also the negative side effect of making one believe that whatever they were doing was the “right thing” to do. You can’t lead if you don’t know where you are going. And if I am leading, it must mean de facto that I know the objective (and have the plan to get us there). That can be unhealthy. It can breed not only excellence but disfunction as well if you close yourself off to alternative views.

There is a fine line between competence and arrogance. This is further compounded by the fact that we often find ourselves in leadership positions not of our own making. When you are thrust into such conditions (which has often been the case for me), the process regularly starts with “Fake it ‘til you make it.” Unfortunately, you can also convince yourself that you really do know what you obviously do not. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, “Success is the ability to move from one failure to another without loss of enthusiasm.” If you can’t be right, at least be confident!

One can get the delusion that because things are successful, it must be because you made it so. We confuse “association” with “causality.” Yes, effort can overcome many of the impediments in life, but you can’t attribute “pure dumb luck” to your capabilities.

My “over enthusiasm for my own competencies” is manifest. I once gave a talk to aspiring entrepreneurs when one made the statement, “Yeah, but you always think you’re right.” My forceful retort, “Of course! Why would you ever start a company if you didn’t think you were smarter than everyone else or had a better idea? If you don’t, you shouldn’t even be here.”  Believing in oneself can lead to success, but it can also lead to deceiving yourself that you are in control of the outcomes.

As they say, “Nothing succeeds like success.” But nothing is more dangerous than too much success. I have been the prisoner of such “fantasies” (but in that I doubt I’m alone). Regardless of how well (or badly) things are going, they can (and will) get worse. No matter how many times you run the table, you will eventually roll “snake eyes” (a mixed metaphor, but you get the point). Regardless of your desires or effort, you can still come up short.

You become the person sitting in front of the TV, remote in hand with seemingly unrestrained power at your fingertips (literally). One push of the button and the world comes to life. Then the power goes out. The electronic devices reset themselves and don’t respond. If you are lucky when you reboot everything returns back where you want them. You are once again in “control.” But maybe they don’t. Or perhaps you buy a new device that is incompatible with your old remote. When this happens, we often continue to march on in the same direction (without really understanding that things have changed).

Click! Nothing. Click, Click, Click. Still nothing. No matter how hard we push, nothing will happen until we understand that our “universal remote control” does not control the universe, not even remotely.

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