Archives For Leaders of Character


January 5, 2016 — 1 Comment

HNS 550 DPI 2001A young, elegant, and perfectly composed Cindy Schwarzkopf stood before the teary-eyed assembly in West Point’s vast and upward-reaching Gothic chapel. She spoke to her family, ex-vice presidents, secretaries of state, great generals and battle-hardened, jaw-clamping warriors, these tough men of straight spines and many wounds.

“How do I honor my father, a man of exceptional gifts, in ten minutes? Doing right was his guide — get it done and get it right.”

Three years and four days ago, we lost one of our now very rare national heroes. In the words of the black streets which were my home, General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, The Bear, had gone up a yonder to meet his Maker and to take his reward.

He had committed his character and genius to living fearlessly in selfless service to concepts greater than himself. By demonstrating unwavering fidelity under a self-imposed rule of courage and principles, he had achieved the Cervantes goal of achieving victory over self and had met the Horace Mann standard of winning a victory for humanity. The Bear was our last liberator of other peoples and the admired ring champion over an unquestioned tyrant. After retirement, instead of seeking power and wealth, he spent his time with family while quietly funding and serving charities for terminally ill children.

Nearing the 25th anniversary of the American victory in Desert Storm, it’s easier for us to celebrate Frank Sinatra’s cool, sensual rock star life-style than to cement within ourselves the character of a Soldier who took great wounds for his beloved Soldiers and nation, and whose great sins were outbursts at senior officers and a weakness for chocolate chip mint ice cream.

The Bear passed two days after Christmas, a holiday he cherished. Now, on New Year’s Eve, I thank him for his giving of his life to the development of leaders of character. I think this is the second greatest gift any one can give to others, for it produces persons who will fight fiercely to get it right, instead of fight selfishly to get More.

Thank you, sir. I will not forget you.


I’m delighted to announce the release of my new book, WITH SCHWARZKOPF: LIFE LESSONS OF THE BEAR from Smithsonian Books. It happily recounts the life-changing privilege of being mentored by the General across a 47-year relationship. Where many mentors focus on professional advancement, the Bear’s fierce commitment was to replace my weaknesses with unflinching character, to get it right instead of to get ahead. I’d come from a long history of family tragedies triggered by immoral decisions; he offered lessons and skills for one who hungered for moral instruction and reconstruction. I hope this book does honor to a man who honored others.

Smithsonian Books

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dreamstime_xs_45845955“Fear is contagious. But so is courage,” concluded Glenn Harlan Reynolds last week in USA Today. Reynolds was reporting on the terrorist attack on a French high-speed train in which three American friends on holiday quickly subdued a Moroccan gunman, saved the life of his badly-wounded gunshot victim, and probably rescued most of their 550 fellow passengers from death and terror.

What I didn’t know is that British businessman Chris Norman had come forward to help the Americans. Norman told the Fiscal Times that when the shooting began, “I was frankly, dead scared.” He quickly hid. But seeing the moral courage and physical bravery of three young Americans, the 62-year old grandfather came from hiding and retrieved ties and belts from silent, fear-paralyzed passengers. He then helped bind the wrists and ankles of the furiously fighting assailant, a man who was on three Euro-security watch lists, had an AK-47, eight 30-round magazines, a semi-automatic handgun, and a box cutter, with which he slashed Spencer Stone, the American closest to the terrorist.

In Courage: The Backbone of Leadership, I wrote that we operate in a culture of fear. We use the modern terms, “conflict avoidance,” to dignify cowardice – an ancient, morally convicting word that might have seemed insensitive to cowards. Every day, in terror of discomfort and in fear of disapproval, we avoid difficult personal situations that call for well-spoken truths and respectful interventions.  (Failure to speak up has caused our massive economic upheavals, depressions and recessions.) Several times every day, we face the River of Our Fears and can look the other way, or, act rightly. Chris Norman experienced the impulse for personal survival. But seeing courage in action he was reminded of his better self.

Churchill deemed courage “the first of all human qualities, for it alone guarantees the existence of the others.” Courage wipes clean the cobwebs of our naturally fearful and avoidant selves. We are wired to act heroically but must cultivate those neural pathways with grand intention lest our emotions dictate our lives. That’s why we can’t help but be inspired by courage and to imitate it until we demonstrate it.

The age of heroism has not passed. It is here, before us, for in truth, no generation, regardless of war, peace, depression, or prosperity, is spared the need to demonstrate courage on the ever-watched stage of our personal and public lives.

Thank you to three California buddies since childhood – Airman 1C Spencer Stone, Infantryman SP4 Alek Skarlatos, just back from Afghanistan, and brave student Anthony Sadler – for demonstrating courage regardless of risk to your self-interest. Thank you to Chris Norman, for crossing your River of Fear.

Courage, said Aristotle, is a learned set of practiced skills with which, like playing the violin or playing goalie, we are not born. If you want to learn and practice the skills to build habits of courage and to construct strong and straight backs in your workplace, home, community, and personal life, I challenge you to read Courage: The Backbone of Leadership. It was written by a recovering coward with a weak and scoliosis-bent spine.


August 17, 2015 — 3 Comments

Last week, I was in Houston, practicing skills of bridge building and teamwork with great people in 104°temperatures. It reminded me of West Point’s summer training, just completed by the strong Class of 2019. I remember the high heat and sapping 90% humidity while being hampered by two months of food deprivation. Absent were the easy West Coast climes of my childhood. This New York summer had simply become moving One Boot At a Time. Legs in deep fatigue, lungs wheeze, backs ache, and it all seems uphill. Sweat stings the eyes and streams like the water which we carry but are not permitted to drink. Instead, we down salt tablets (Science hadn’t yet figured out that this could kill a person). The M-14 rifle weighs 9.1 pounds without the magazine; at the 10-mile, steep, up-strike mark, it feels like the decimal point dropped out. I’m a 17-year old asking, “Are we there yet?” I’m trying to survive. Teamwork? Good luck with that!

Despite ten years of earlier YMCA coaching in boxing, track, and long-distance swimming, I harbor a fondness for isolation and quitting when it gets tough. I want desperately to stop for a little water. I stumble and almost pitch into a ravine: wow – the ravine looked inviting. My weaknesses tempt: “you’re special and unique and deserve a break today! Stop and steal a sip from your canteen!” But if I do, I’ll trigger a centipede-like recoil through the column, causing the suffering stragglers at the rear to double-time to close the gap. I don’t care. I’m uncomfortable! I’m in the grip of what St. Augustine called INCURVATUS IN SE – my fierce instinct to protect my own needs.

A sudden and loud crash of metal and skidding, skinned flesh, and a cry of pain: an exhausted buddy has fallen on the trail and is sliding downhill. He’s one of the less popular guys, a complainer who gives voice to what I feel. I think: MAYBE NOW I CAN STOP. A squad mate named Bob Lorbeer quickly grabs the guy, lifts him up and smiles as if we’d been playing Catch. Cadre sprint forward to help as the column keeps marching. “You can do this, Buddy,” says Bob, slipping the guy’s 91-pound rifle on his own free shoulder – Bob now has two rifles. “You’re good to carry your pack. But I can take it. I’ll be right here.” The buddy nods – he can do it. Bob helped everyone.

Magically, on seeing this, the sour lactic acids in my legs evaporate. Cool air relieves my breathing. My back, the heavy pack, and steel pot feel fine. I’m not thirsty. Bob’s moral example has inspired me, and that inspiration has removed my physical complaints. Bob’s type of attitude and action was what I was supposed to practice in the hard black mountains of West Point. I wasn’t supposed to serve my comforts; I was to build moral fiber, to grow my wishbone into a backbone, to practice ancient disciplines of responsibility and accountability, to bridge-build and demonstrate truly generous teamwork without internal carping. West Point had poured a code into our DNA that said we should care for others more than for ourselves.

Truly, I do wish you genuine “good luck with that” in your summer training.

© Aydindurdu | -

© Aydindurdu | –

Rich Karlgaard, Forbes’ publisher, recently wrote, “Being a jerk isn’t worth it. It will damage your heart and soul. It will hurt, not help, your teams. It will lead more often to poverty than to riches. Instead, follow B.C. Forbes’ advice: Produce happiness.” To this we can say, “Bravo, Rich Karlgaard!”

But we face the age-old question that could stump a “Jeopardy” show champ: As everyone wants to be happy, how do we produce true happiness?

In my childhood, meals were foraged and Happiness was a noun in the dictionary. In Peanuts-talk, happiness wasn’t a warm blanket – it was food of any variety as long as it didn’t fight back. In boxing, happiness was not kissing the canvas to be revived by heavy ammonia smelling salts. I once thought I’d be happy if I simply ran 5 miles a day, did more sit-ups, and cut out sweets.

When I was a studious teen, I learned that the great sage Aristotle would’ve disagreed with my conclusions. “Everyone,” he said in ethics lectures in the Lyceum recorded for his son, “wants to be happy. People believe wealth, power, and physical pleasure will make them happy.” I liked that: wealth meant food. “But what people seek in happiness,” he continued, “will not provide it.”

Aristotle had empirically researched people who had The Big Three goodies. He found that these fortunate people weren’t particularly happy. Thus Aristotle, who also invented the modern Western university, long ago disproved what most people still believe today. This, despite ample proof of the woes of many who enjoy excesses in fun and toys. Aristotle’s next logical question was, “If not wealth, power, or pleasure, what then actually brings happiness?”

Aristotle found the answer. After 2300 years, it continues to be counterintuitive and true. People of virtue – those who do the right thing – and who live moderately, are the most loved, admired, respected, and the healthiest and happiest. Wealth, power, and pleasure might be there, but they aren’t required.

I was happy when I worked for a principled, Aristotelian boss or with principled colleagues. I was happiest when courageous leadership created those two conditions in an organization that sought to be principled. Predictably, misery was working for a toxic boss or having predatory co-workers who spewed gossip.

Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, three wise Athenians, held that happiness isn’t material or physical. It can’t be bought, connived, smoked, or put into a chocolate brownie. It is an interior quality that nests in unseen heart and soul and is developed by virtuous conduct. Right living – disciplined self-governance, principled leadership, love, and caring action – can replace our focus on ourselves.

Talk about bunkum, I thought; it was Greek to me.

When I was 20, my mentor, Norm Schwarzkopf, saw that my rejection of Aristotle predicted my resistance to change, and that I’d seek meaning by chasing status, money, and pleasure. He tried to move me from this common and deceptively easy 8-lane toll road to instead climb upward to a high, narrow ridge.

Rich Karlgaard rightly advises that we should make happiness our goal instead of pursuing wealth like a pack of dogs barking after elusive, exhaust-billowing buses.

Norm Schwarzkopf set the example that happiness comes from doing the disciplined duties of virtue – controlling our fierce love of self and freeing ourselves from being slaves to our insatiable wants and grand appetites – and aligning with principles instead of profits. I believe he was a happy man.

What happiness mistakes are you making?

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?”


iStock_000000406014MediumLeaders do the right thing. Today, many hold that no one can say what is moral, or what is right or wrong. But we admire Abraham Lincoln, a leader of character who did the HIGHEST MORAL ACTION despite the risks. To act, he first had to DISCERN which option was the highest right. He had to use the lost art of moral reasoning.

DISCERNMENT is moral reasoning. It’s the opposite of expedience, short-term-results, political correctness, acceptance, esteem, polls, conflict avoidance, protecting backsides and claiming that no one can say what is right. It’s about one thing: DOING THE HIGHEST RIGHT.

Three tools can help us discern the highest right. First is Conscience (Aug 2012 blog). I become still; I listen to the inner voice; I record its guidance in my calendar. Gandhi said that conscience, which George Washington called celestial fire, was the only tyrant he would accept. But this isn’t easy; Americans are now world leaders in ignoring our conscience.[1]

Today, I’ll describe the second tool: Tier 3 Elimination Analysis. Ask: What’s my most fearful, selfish option? A fear-driven answer pops up. Call this Tier 1 egotism — common cowardice – not a good option. Then ask: what’s the most expedient and pragmatic action for me and my own? This is Tier 2 material results for material people. Now, fear of not having money trumps love of family, and we teach children to compete for cash rather than to improve as people. I once rationalized pragmatism, fear and overwork as “taking care of family.” But I’m not in The Matrix; I was wired to be a moral being. My family wanted time with me more than money. I write this as one who was hungry as a kid and fired and laid-off as a parent of young children.

Third is Tier 3 courage: THE HIGHEST RIGHT THING among remaining right options.

THE CHALLENGE: Listen to conscience. Name and scratch off Tier 1 and Tier 2 options. Match your Tier 3 Highest Right with what conscience told you. Now imagine doing this action. Don’t do it – simply imagine taking this action. Congratulations! You’ve just practiced DISCERNMENT.

I’ll write next time of the third and final tool we can use for DISCERNING THE HIGHEST MORAL ACTION. Until then, imagine courage and character in your life.


[1], reported in the Boston Globe, June 6, 2010.

Want to acquire a life-changing competence? The big leadership authorities (Aristotle, Washington, Bennis, Burns, Maxwell, Covey, Schwarzkopf, others) teach us that character is The Single Must of the effective leader. But where can you find a course in character-based leading? Rare is the leader development program that replaces the PowerPoint lecture with the practice of behaviors, skills and tools of character-based leading.

It’s happening in Fort Collins, August 25-29. Thanks to Colorado State University’s famous IRM program, a precious few (15-20 of you) can join a small cohort of CSU grad students in the city Money magazine said is the best place to live in America. In a 5-day program, you’ll practice and receive encouragement while being equipped in six essential, highly practical and rarely-taught take-away character-leadership skill sets. This isn’t as good as world peace, and it’s better than enduring two root canals while sitting still and looking at projected data slides for five days:

1.  Seven Character Advancement tools to strengthen character

2. Four key character and career derailers with an opportunity to change

3. Five results-producing Courageous Communication tools for verbal effectiveness as a leader

4. Three life-changing Courageous Conflict Resolution tools to solve that which scares 98% of Americans

5. A Nathan-Joab Accountability Matrix to defeat the 4 key character and career derailers (#2, above)

6. An Individual Character Advancement Plan – a calendared road map to build courage and character with key physical conditioning tips to maximize strength, endurance, hardiness and weight loss

CSU’s IRM Graduate Program helps to make this program affordable. The fee does not cover lodging and provides 5 lunches. To learn more and to register on a first-come basis, go to Below Upcoming Engagements, find Pages: the third item down is the CSU Building Leaders of Character course Description/Registration. Click on that and you’re on your way to CSU, the gateway to the awe-inspiring Rocky Mountains, and to becoming a leader of character.