Archives For July 2015

FullSizeRender (21)Forbes’ publisher, Rich Karlgaard, asked this week, “Are the dirtbags winning?” He cited the hyper-rich and abrasive personalities of Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and Uber’s now-infamous Travis Kalanick.

Let’s accept that dirtbags do wheelies on workplaces and the economy like Evel Knievel on a Vegas strip. Cruel, oppressive, and authoritarian behaviors have harmed leadership, teamwork, productivity, and our mental health since the first caveman picked up a club.

Karlgaard observed that titan dirtbags might be rare. He cited magazine founder B.C. Forbes’s words: “Business was to produce happiness, not to pile up millions.”

I think the late General H. Norman “The Bear” Schwarzkopf would’ve agreed. The Bear fiercely believed that leaders must always model right and selfless action. An Adam Smith purist, he thought business should serve the community with rational self-interest. He knew that doing the right thing was the most practical and effective business strategy. Research into longitudinal profitability and institutional results by Jim Collins and others proved him right.

But should we focus on a few bad-acting hyper rich? The truth is that we all own a streak of dirtbag behavior. Triggered by fear and fatigue, our worst impulses can steam up like a seething volcano. The Bear encouraged me to act rightly and correctly, especially when faced with fear, fatigue, bad news, poor performances, and a burned-out Keurig 2.0. He wanted me to be my best self while others turn on their Bad Behavior Apps.

Aristotle researched the tỳrannos, the dirtbags of Athens. In Politics he wrote that the bad ruler advances by sowing fear instead of fostering courage and by silencing critics while entertaining flatterers. Tyrants disgust freemen, but the courageous, virtuous leader assures his survival and the success of his followers by “limiting his own powers.”

How to deal with a tyrant? Aristotle advised that the tỳrannos should change his behaviors. I love this radical answer. The Bear taught this to me when I was a diffident cadet trying to get through West Point with recreational reading and poker playing. The Bear taught that I, a natural moral coward, could succeed by doing my assignments, addressing wrongs, and apologizing to those I harmed. He knew that at 20, I was actively developing dirtbag habits of acting arrogantly and selfishly with an unearned sense of my own importance.

When we see powerful tycoons act poorly and prosper, we fear they’ve turned the world upside down. It follows that when I act like a pompous know-it-all, I turn my own world askew.

H. Norman Schwarzkopf had a temper, which I’d experienced at close range. He could exert harsh anger at senior officers. I also saw him use his great will to curb it. He applied that same energy to teach others to be Aristotelian instead of tyrannical. We’re all products of change. The question is, am I becoming more of my bad habits?

What’s one behavior you can change to face the small tyrant within you?

Next week, with help from the Bear, we’ll tackle the second part of Rich Karlgaard’s article – Are rich dirtbags happy?

With Schwarzkopf: Life Lessons of The Bear, which captures many personal lessons about courage that the H. Norman taught to Gus Lee, will be published by Smithsonian in mid-October.

Atticus Finch is a racist in Harper Lee’s recently released novel,” Kirstie sadly tweeted yesterday morning. “Currently questioning my entire existence.” I sympathize.

In Harper Lee’s new novel, Go Set a Watchman, Scout Finch, the gutsy child in To Kill a Mockingbird, has become a 26-year old woman who learns that her heroic father Atticus is in reality a Klan bigot. It’s a heart-breaking moment for daughter Scout, for the Library Association, and for American literature. Or is it?

Author Nelle Harper Lee, an intensely private person, avoided colleges but in the fall of 1964, she came to the United States Military Academy at West Point to speak to us lowly Plebes. Diminutive on a large stage in our cannon-firing fortified campus, she spoke with quiet dignity of demonstrating love and tenderness toward our enemies. Magically, the gentle caress of her soft Southern voice began to shift our toughening personas, forming quiet moral tides that we would need when we later became officers, husbands, and fathers.

FullSizeRender (20)English to the Chinese ear is not easy, but her talk in the dialect of the South inspired me to become an American novelist. In libraries and our surviving book stores, Gus Lee books, due to alphabetical dictates, can touch Harper Lee’s. Not long after her life-changing talk, a new professor named Major H. Norman Schwarzkopf reported to West Point. He would advance that moral voice and touch my life like a brick hitting a plate glass window.

As a kid, I’d feared non-Chinese people. Reared in a black ‘hood, I learned to worry about white folk. But the YMCA, West Point, and the Army tried to teach me to fix my own deficiencies instead of judging and blaming others. I learned that it’s an American habit to be harshly critical and even unforgiving whenever we fail to do the right thing.

While Harper Lee penned Mockingbird, she spoke with her father, Amasa Coleman Lee, a distinguished Alabama lawyer. I imagine her wise and melodious voice detailing a more perfect world that stirred the fires of his deep conscience. From blue, say the Chinese, comes deeper blue; the young can surpass the old. I knew she’d learned some of her wisdom from her papa, and, like the Beatles, she had taken a sad song and made it better.

One evening, long ago, in a far-off disciplined military auditorium, an irresistible voice penetrated the fatigue and stress of a tired freshman class. That voice helped us realign our moral chemistry to a True North; it has spoken to our national conscience ever since.

We admire people of courage who stand for the right. As a former deputy DA, I admired Atticus Finch and his principled stand for the persecuted and innocent Tom Robinson.

But I am inspired more deeply by the privileged who sacrifice self-interest to serve as courageous moral examples. When a distinguished segregationist father loves his daughter and the deeper verities to become the iconic Atticus Finch, I am given the courage of his example, for I have found that stories of moral self-improvement are more powerful than tales of brave stands. The prophet Isaiah said, 2700 years ago, that we should set a watchman to call out that which is right. That the watchman was once blind to his own faults is to capture each of us in our humanity, and to set our eyes aright is to become Atticus Finch.


When you set a watchman in your own life, what behaviors are farthest from True North?


Gus speaking at Duke Fuqua School of Business

I’m giving talks in October for a new book about my mentor’s radical leadership beliefs. Erma Bombeck once said she’d return her advance royalties if the publisher spared her from the dreaded public-speaking author tour. I agreed when my first book, China Boy, catapulted me into a 16-city national author tour with numerous daily media events while I lived for two months on turkey sandwich midnight dinners. Now, with a seventh book, I’m still relying on the sage counsel of my mentor, four-star General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, aka “The Bear.”

We first met when I was a 20-year old West Point cadet; he was the scariest engineering prof in history. But he cringed at my public speaking – I was paralyzed at the podium, head down, reading fast so I could rapidly exit stage left. I said I’d prefer a root canal to giving the graded talk that was required of junior-year cadets.

He bared his teeth and rubbed his hands as if Christmas had come early. “Great! You need to correct this just to live right. And to pass the class.” Then, failing a single class meant expulsion from the Academy. Adopting me as his science project, the Bear labored on my weak character by having me practice that which I wished to avoid. He pounded on my well-developed immaturities and anxieties by requiring me to practice the behaviors of courage so I could develop the habits of courage.

He gave me five points which equipped me to brief infantry units and commanding generals; deliver Army ethics talks; perform 200 jury trials; testify before legislators; survive six author tours; train 140,000 attorneys; and earn a living by giving executive leadership skills programs – unimaginable jobs for a person who feared public speaking.

The Bear’s points:

  1. “First, do your homework. Know your subject matter so well that you can distill it down to its clarified essence. You’re the vessel to deliver the essence to others.”
  2. “Second, practice the talk enough so you don’t have to read it. Ditch the podium. Practice delivering the essence, again and again. Preparation erases fear.
  3. “Third, focus on helping people with the message. Serving others erases anxiety.
  4. “Fourth, do lots of talks. Don’t quit because of discomfort. Practice, practice, practice.
  5. “Fifth, improve. Study the speaker evaluations and quickly correct your faults.”

It’s a fine day in the Pacific Northwest and I’m thinking of our universally shared fear of public speaking. I still feel like Bombeck, but I had practiced with Schwarzkopf.

The Bear faces you and asks, “What behaviors do you practice to face your fears at the podium?”