Benchmarking the POTUS (Part Three)

I appreciate the responses I received from Part Two of this series. Space prevents us from exploring them all here. Here is what we together have come up with as a list of the Key Accountabilities for the POTUS:

  • Faithfully executes the laws of the land
  • Defends the American People from physical and economic threats
  • Shares a cohesive leadership vision with Congress and the American People
  • Empowers appointees to assure their success

The next task for the stakeholders is to determine the measurements for these four Key Accountabilities. “What is the tangible evidence that the President faithfully executes the laws of the land?” I ask our assembled stakeholders.

“With all due respect to President Obama,” says Speaker Ryan, “It would mean that you can’t select which laws to prosecute and which ones to ignore. As an example of a breakdown of this faith, I suggest the failure of this administration to enforce our immigration laws.”

President Obama cannot let this go: “There is no way to prosecute, much less deport, the millions of undocumented people living in America today. The problem is one of acceptance and tolerance, not the letter of laws that were passed by folks who could not have foreseen the current problems. This is why I’ve been after you in Congress for some sensible legislation.”

I try to head another argument off at the pass. “This highlights one of the major problems we have in evaluating the performance of the POTUS. In a system as complex and incongruous as ours has become success in the eyes of some looks like failure in the eyes of others. What, if anything, are the universal elements of these accountabilities – the parts over which there would be no controversy?”

“It seems to me that this is a matter of character and of principle,” says Governor Haley. “It is a question of trustworthiness. So I would measure this by how consistently the person does what they say they will do.”

“This can be difficult in the midst of the realities of global politics. The winds blow one way, and the next day they can change direction,” says Secretary Kerry.

“Reactions such as force deployments may change, but the leadership vision should be constant,” says General Dunford.

“The issue of character and trustworthiness seems to me to apply to all of the Key Accountabilities,” says Attorney General Lynch. “Let me ask you this, Mr. Dardick. How do you measure character?”

It’s a simple question. But it is not an easy one to answer, especially when you’re interviewing someone for a job. We have to specify pertinent traits. Then, we need to accurately evaluate those qualities, without the benefit of working with them over a longer term – how they behave, what they value, what drives them, how they look at the world, and by extension, what their capacities are. We need some agreed upon scale and a proven instrument that provides predictive value. Some psychometric tools give us these kinds of insights. But their use in the workplace, especially in response to matters of “character,” is tricky, and must be properly handled. They must be used in the context of many other considerations.

So I respond: “We tackle this question in the next step of our benchmarking process, which is how we match a person to the role. The election process reveals the character of presidential hopefuls, as does the person’s record. But for those for whom we don’t have this information, and to minimize bias, it’s best to use validated psychometric instruments to accomplish two important objectives. First, to identify the attributes needed for success in the role. Second, to find candidates who closely match our specifications. The match won’t be exact, so once we select a person, we use their personal psychometric profile to optimize the role for them and to develop the competencies most critical for performance in their role.”

Rather than spend our remaining time developing the specific measurements for the current Key Accountabilities, we decide to dive into this phase. I’m good with this. I’ve already made a mental note that some kind of special review panel, one that does not yet exist, would need to be created to continually evaluate and provide feedback in the effort to provide meaningful measurements. They would likely use surveys and other key indicators to correlate the desired outcomes identified in the Key Accountabilities with the decisions and actions of the President.

We spend the next 90 minutes responding to the questions in the instrument that I selected, always keeping in mind that we are answering for the role, not a person. This process spurs some discussion, but thankfully it lacks the polarization of earlier exchanges. I’m feeling good that the team is finally coming together to collectively determine the best answers.

Once we’re done with this phase, I thank all of the participants for their valuable contributions and adjourn the panel. I will now go back and compile the results into a formalized benchmark. The final version is typically used to attract, select, develop, and retain the best talent for critical roles. Once someone is hired (elected, in this case), we often produce a gap report to highlight the differences between their personal attributes and those of the role itself. I typically use three or four technologies to get as accurate a look as possible. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to zero in on just one of those.

Originally developed in the 1950’s through the early 1970’s by Dr. Robert Hartman, it is a profile that utilizes the science of axiology to describe the way that a person develops their judgment of what is good or bad in very specific way. The instrument isn’t a true judge of character or ethics, but it does reveal an uncanny amount of information about how a person views the world and their place in it. The research of Dr. Bill Bonstetter and his scientific team, conducted over the past twenty years or so, has clarified and distilled the results of this instrument in order to link it to performance in the workplace. Their version yields outputs measured in 25 competencies, as follows:

  1. Conceptual Thinking
  2. Conflict Management
  3. Continuous Learning
  4. Creativity
  5. Customer Focus
  6. Decision Making
  7. Diplomacy & Tact
  8. Empathy
  9. Employee Development/Coaching
  10. Flexibility
  11. Futuristic Thinking
  12. Goal Achievement
  13. Interpersonal Skills
  14. Leadership
  15. Negotiation
  16. Personal Accountability
  17. Persuasion
  18. Planning & Organizing
  19. Presenting
  20. Problem Solving Ability
  21. Resiliency
  22. Self-Management
  23. Teamwork
  24. Understanding & Evaluating Others
  25. Written Communication

The responses we gave in the stakeholders meeting would have derived a chart that ranks these in order from most important, to important, to somewhat important, to not important. When completing this survey, it’s tempting to just say that they all matter, because you can make a case that this is true. The problem is that you will never find human beings for whom all competencies are rated highly. The reason for this is that there are tradeoffs between these competencies. Highly functioning people can be relatively stronger on most if not all of the competencies than others, but there will always be a range of relative personal strengths and weaknesses. So I moderated the discussion to make sure that we achieved an adequate differential.

Our Benchmark for the POTUS revealed these as the top five competencies. (I’d like your opinion if you think the list should be different.)

  1. Leadership
  2. Decision Making
  3. Resiliency
  4. Presenting
  5. Diplomacy & Tact

When matching candidates for a role, it’s helpful to not only look at the top competencies, but also the bottom ones. If a person is strong in an area, they will tend to use that strength, even if the job doesn’t call for it. So it’s wise to avoid hiring people who are strong in areas that are not needed in their role. Here are the bottom five competencies for the POTUS:

  • Conflict Management
  • Problem Solving Ability
  • Employee Development/Coaching
  • Written Communication
  • Creativity

The next part of our thought experiment is to compare candidates to these established parameters. For the sake of brevity, we’ll look at only the six candidates who are currently polling in double digits. To do this correctly, we would give each of them the instrument to complete online and then compare the results, the selection panel being blind to which candidate has which results. This further reduces bias. In this case, I’m going to have to use my imagination based upon the impressions I get from their campaigns along with their professional track records to project the results. We’ll take them one at a time:

Donald Trump:

Top Five: Decision Making, Futuristic Thinking, Goal Achievement, Negotiation, Resiliency.

Bottom Five: Conceptual Thinking, Diplomacy & Tact, Flexibility, Presenting, Teamwork

Dr. Ben Carson:

Top Five: Conceptual Thinking, Continuous Learning, Empathy, Diplomacy & Tact, Presenting.

Bottom Five: Conflict Management, Negotiation, Persuasion, Understanding & Evaluating Others, Customer Focus.

Senator Ted Cruz:

Top Five: Conceptual Thinking, Resiliency, Futuristic Thinking, Presenting, Personal Accountability.

Bottom Five: Conflict Management, Flexibility, Understanding & Evaluating Others, Teamwork, Diplomacy & Tact.

Senator Marco Rubio:

Top Five: Presenting, Interpersonal Skills, Persuasion, Resiliency, Conflict Management.

Bottom Five: Creativity, Employee Development & Coaching, Flexibility, Planning & Organizing, Self-Management.

Secretary Hillary Clinton:

Top Five: Futuristic Thinking, Goal Achievement, Planning & Organizing, Resiliency, Teamwork.

Bottom Five: Decision Making, Personal Accountability, Leadership, Empathy, Conflict Management.

Senator Bernie Sanders:

Top Five: Customer Focus, Futuristic Thinking, Leadership, Resiliency, Self-Management.

Bottom Five: Decision Making, Diplomacy & Tact, Flexibility, Teamwork, Goal Achievement.

You may not agree with my assessments. I’m certain that if the candidates were to complete the instrument, we would be surprised by much of the results. That is why these instruments are so valuable – they help us see past our personal biases.

If you’re so inclined, have a look at the lists above. Try to compare each set of personal competencies for the candidates with the POTUS benchmark. You should look at the competencies, yes, but also the Key Accountabilities. What do you believe about each candidate that would serve that person well in each of these areas? What do see that could be a potential shortcoming?

Here’s one way to look at the results. For every competency that matches either the top or bottom five, give a point. For every top competency for a candidate that appears in the bottom five for the position, and vice versa, subtract a point. Evaluating my results, Dr. Carson comes out on top with a score of 3, followed by Ted Cruz at 2, then Marco Rubio at 1. Trump, Clinton, and Sanders are all tied for fourth at 0.

If you view the upcoming debates and election coverage through this lens, you may pick up on things that would otherwise escape your notice. If this turns out to be the case, then these three weeks of work of benchmarking the POTUS will have been worth it.

Advertisements

America the Beautiful (Ugly)

America the Beautiful Ugly

Judging by my Facebook feed, we should not continue to celebrate Columbus Day. Judging by the sentiment at the 20th anniversary of the Nation of Islam’s Million Man March ominously entitled Justice or Else!, we should not be celebrating July 4th, or really America-as-founded in any significant way. Judging by the logic of the political left as was on display at the first 2016 Democrat Party presidential debate, America has never been America the Beautiful. It is and always has been America the Ugly – racist, unjust, selfish, a scourge to the rest of the world – in dire need of continued fundamental transformation.

America has been taking it on the chin for most of my life. I suppose it began in earnest in the late 50’s and early 60’s with the counter-culture movement, later signified in anti-Vietnam protests and race rioting. Certainly racial politics and progressive, collectivist thinking had been chipping away at the bedrock of traditional American ideals. But it took a while to overtake our institutions.

While I was in grade school, I was taught to love America. People didn’t question America’s innate goodness. We were taught why millions and millions from all over the world wanted nothing more than to have a shot at life in America. The family of my paternal grandfather was like that, having escaped the Bolshevik revolution and ending up in NYC around 1920. When I was ten we went to Disneyland. In the Hall of Presidents, I saw the animatronic Abraham Lincoln deliver his historic speeches about freedom and the importance of the individual. It brought tears to my young eyes. I didn’t encounter vehement hatred for America until I went to college in Boston in 1979.

The first time I walked Harvard Square, student protesters handed me pamphlets about the evil, secretive Trilateral Commission and propaganda from MassPIRG. They were passionate about injustices that I’d never heard of before. They were all “shocked and appalled.” It was surreal and unappealing to me – I didn’t see the utility of living life in that continual state.

The drumbeat then was how the “Bedtime for Bonzo clown Reagan” was going to drive us to nuclear war and economic and environmental ruin. In my first Economics class, I was taught that the world would run out of oil by 2004. That professor also taught Keynesian models that even at age 17 I knew had been discredited. Other claims in the air at that time were that the oceans would be dead by the turn of the century and that we were going to suffer greatly from a rapidly approaching Ice Age.

Though things didn’t quite work out that way, that drumbeat hasn’t quieted. The villains have morphed, but the protest has spread from the University to secondary schools, pop culture, and most traditional institutions.

Life in today’s public schools is markedly different from 40 years ago. Just this week an Oregon boy was sent home for wearing this shirt:

patriotic tshirt

America, at least in its traditional sense, along with Christianity is being ejected from our public schools. In are multi-culturalism, identity politics, and environmental activism. Instead of an Ice Age, we are now taught to fear Anthropomorphic Global Warming. (Actually, proponents have learned not to commit to a particular temperature direction; it’s bad for business. So they’ve wisely shifted to the catch-all phrase Climate Change. Now the $22 billion per year industry has more sustainability regardless of its predictive shortcomings – climate will always change.)

Our children are taught not so much about the miraculous achievement of America’s founding as they are the injustices of European (read: white) aggression. Textbooks are scant on Franklin, Madison, and Harrison and heavy on slavery, the plight of Native Americans, and the history of women’s rights. Columbus is not portrayed so much as a brave explorer who helped spread western civilization but as a greedy, blood-thirsty conqueror who spread injustice and disease. America as founded is deemed guilty of the original sin of slavery and of ongoing rape of the planet. The sentence for these transgressions is death.

This mindset is necessary to continue to expand the State in America. The success of the American Experiment is a stiff headwind against the growth of the State. The State requires a pliant and needy population who are content to trade freedom and opportunity for the security of a safety net. (Our children are no longer taught Benjamin Franklin’s famous admonishment against this.)

The problem for Statists in America is that this has never been the American character. People who have come to America over its history were not meek and mild. They wanted to be left alone, not taken care of. Prototypical Americans want to pursue their dreams and they want to be able to profit from their labors. People like this are brave. They also understand the value of cooperation and specialization. People who value the individual above the state also have respect for others. This breeds compassion and kindness. Cooperative creative endeavors brought about unprecedented innovation and wealth, the “5000 Year Leap” that demarks the modern era. This collective experience has built reverence for free markets and entrepreneurism.

But there is a portion of our population for whom the promise of America has been historically withheld and subsequently less available – black Americans.

Despite civil rights laws and uncountable programs designed to assist blacks to overcome institutional hurdles, large disparities persist. Understandably, resentment is strong as was evidenced by the “Down with America” chants by tens of thousands in D.C. this past weekend. Those who are caught in the whirlpool of dependence rightly feel disappointed. Over the past 40+ years, they’ve been electing Democrats who have promised to deliver to them better prospects. When Obama was elected, the black community was elated, because it signified that the day of promise had finally come. But seven years later, it hasn’t.

This reality places the 2016 Democrat presidential hopefuls in an awkward position. They must embrace the policies of Obama and at the same time distance themselves. It was amusing to watch the attempt during the debate. They had to behave as though they hadn’t held power over the past seven years. Their answers are the same as ever. “There are too many guns!” “More taxes on the wealthy!” “Make Wall Street pay for college for everybody!” “The 1% are greedy!” “The Republicans are holding us back!” “It’s Bush’s fault!” “Raise the minimum wage!” “We haven’t gone far enough!” In a nutshell, they suggested that in order to solve the pressing problems or our day, we have to keep doing what we’ve been doing. Good luck with that.

It’s an old show. These are characters straight out of an Ayn Rand novel. But if you watch close enough, you can glimpse reality behind the curtain of promises and platitudes. There is a sense, on the part of most Americans, that something is really wrong. People sense that our system is not functioning properly. Most pundits miss it, but this is why Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina are polling so well. In normal times, those candidates would have had similar standings as do Webb, Chafee, and O’Malley (all poll at less than 1%.)

Americans know that our system is strained. Yes, the stock market is high. But people sense that we’re in a debt bubble that could not only burst at any time, but when it does it will dwarf the housing bubble of 2007.

Sanders and Trump both boldly and clearly descry the corruption of our electoral system – they both declare that moneyed interests rule the day. They have very different ideas about both the remedies and what a better system would look like, of course. But they both tap into the feeling of disempowerment that many Americans feel. (Sanders, though his performance was spirited and earnest, blew his remote chance of winning the Democrat Party nomination during the debate when he compromised his ethical high ground by calling for the sweeping aside of the ongoing and scandalous national security investigation involving ex-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.)

The Democrat candidates vilified and belittled Trump and the other Republicans. For their part, the Republicans, along with prominent conservative pundits, ridiculed the Democrat candidates. What one side accepts as axiomatic, the other discounts. This exchange is perhaps juvenile and distasteful. But it is instructive. Trump calls these hopeful leaders (along with Obama and other past and current leaders) stupid. It makes no sense to him why we would act the way we do on the world stage. His assessment reveals that he’s missing something.

He does not seem to understand the important element of what belies the policies and decisions to which he objects. He fails to perceive that American Statists, including Obama, Clinton, and Sanders along with many others, want some things to which they cannot publicly admit and remain electable. First, they want our system to collapse. They believe that they can build something better in its place. Second, they want a new order that obsoletes nationhood. They want One World government. This is not something you will hear any of them explain. They know it will not be well received. Americans still, funny enough, kind of like America.

The story of America is of course not monolithic. No human endeavor is pure. We label things, in this case America, good or bad based upon our perceptions and values. Statists dislike America as founded. It represents the exact opposite of their ideal. Through their eyes, American history has been a never-ending stream of oppression.

I took my family to NYC a few years ago. In Rockefeller Center, we grabbed a quick breakfast before the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. I asked an older gentleman if he would mind if we joined him at his table in the crowded café. He welcomed us graciously. It turned out that he was from Switzerland and a retired commercial airline pilot.  Over the course of his long career with Swissair, he had travelled extensively; to literally every country in the world. In a thick accent, he told my kids this: “Be thankful that you live in America, children. It is the greatest country in the world. It is not even close. By any measure – hospitality, kindness, generosity, fairness, choice, opportunity – America is a friend to all in need – it is the best.”

I’ll take his word for it.

Guns are Good

Are cars good or bad? If you say good, what of the more than 35,000 annual domestic deaths due to motor vehicle crashes? If in consideration of these losses, hundreds of thousands of injuries, and their polluting exhaust you conclude that cars are indeed bad and therefore their use should be further limited, you may be discounting the higher lifestyle and freedoms that the automobile affords millions.

Many believe guns are bad. It’s a reasonable position, as their effects upon the human body are horrific. It’s especially easy to vilify guns in the wake of senseless mass shootings as recently happened at Umpqua Community College in Oregon. We can all imagine ourselves or our loved ones innocently attending classes or going out for an enjoyable night at the movies and suddenly subject to an unthinkable attack.  It is reasonable to take action to prevent that from happening.

Homicide by firearms number around 11,000 annually (and falling – the murder rate is down 50% from its historic highs in the early 1990’s, but it is spiking as much as 73% this year in some cities.) Suicide gun deaths are double that. A few thousand fewer people die each year by the bullet as do in motor vehicle accidents. Our reactions to these unpalatable incidents are very different, though.

Perhaps it’s because traffic deaths are overwhelmingly accidents. Only about 500 or so gun deaths are accidental. The others are all intentional. As mentioned, two thirds of these deaths are suicides. Of the homicides, historically around 75% are committed by people with a criminal history. Crimes of passion and first-offender murderous gun-wielding madmen are relatively rare.

But this doesn’t stop left-leaning politicians from calling for more gun control each and every time a lunatic strikes. Their argument is that it is innately wrong that guns should be so common and easy to obtain. I suppose they also believe that it follows that if we enforced even more gun restrictions than are currently on the books, there would be a reduction in these events. Though this may be sensible on the surface, fewer guns = less opportunity = fewer murders, the evidence does not support the claim.

We won’t be able to fully prosecute the gun control argument here. I do wonder why these same politicians never point out that every mass shooting (defined as more than four deaths aside from the perpetrator and numbering over the past century at around 170 or so) with two exceptions since 1950 occurred in places where it was illegal for citizens to carry guns. Gun free zones in fact act as advertisements where perpetrators can be relatively assured that there won’t be people there to prematurely thwart their efforts. Advocates for more gun control also don’t discuss the profiles of mass shooters  – almost always young, white, and male with a 60% likelihood of having been previously diagnosed with mental disorder. Some suspect that the behavior of some recent mass murderers may be linked to harmful side effects of powerful psychotropic drugs used to treat their behaviors.

Pundits and politicians also seem reluctant to discuss deeper social realities that may relate to these tragic incidents – the breakdown of the nuclear family, the lack of a clear demarcation between boyhood and manhood, the onset of violent video games, the worship of celebrity, and laws that make it nearly impossible to commit a person to a mental institution without their consent.

One might reasonably doubt that those politicians are really trying to solve the problem. It seems at least possible that they have ulterior motives. What might those be? You might consult the literature of their ideology and study history for answers. I’ll leave that up to you.

President Obama, Hillary Clinton, and many others blame the gun for the crime. Hillary said in a recent speech that it is wrong not to hold the gun manufacturers accountable for these deaths. (I wonder how GM and Ford feel about that one.) I think it’s safe to say that they and their supporters fall into the “guns are bad” camp.

History makes a counter argument. How did society function before widespread firearm ownership? In Europe and non-industrial parts of the world, power was held by the strong. The big man called the shots. The lord, baron, governor, duke, or king ran, what were in essence, protection rackets. There was no such thing as a middle class. There was little freedom or personal ambition and therefore progress was slow.  It was a world that lacked justice and Thomas Hobbes famously described in Leviathan where life was “solitary, nasty, brutish, and short.” In too many places, this describes life to this day.

Women were particularly vulnerable. They were nearly universally considered second class citizens, somewhere between men and children. This was not because women lacked strength of character and of mind, but strength of arm. The gun has served as an equalizer in society and indeed is a factor in ushering in the modern age.

The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is amazingly powerful. It was written short and sweet so as to be difficult to subvert. That hasn’t stopped the efforts of the left, as its spirit would forbid the existence of a gun free zone. Often, those who favor the restriction of firearms refer to the Second Amendment as out of date and not suited for modern life. To hold this view, you must ignore the rationale that the authors themselves gave for its prominence in the Bill of Rights.

The reason that the Second Amendment is in our Constitution is this – to protect personal power. James Madison explained the role of the militia (private armed citizens.) It was necessary as a check against any governing force, foreign or domestic.

Madison and his contemporaries understood human nature better than our current crop of leaders. In an ideal world, guns would be unnecessary. Everyone would be enlightened so as to eschew violence and warfare. They would not seek dominion over others. But as the men of America’s founding knew, this is not human nature.

For that reason, guns are necessary. Like it or not. I believe the world is best served when moral and peace-loving people are better armed than those who are not. In the hands of the just, guns stop evil dead in its tracks. Therefore guns are a great good.

The Whole Middle East Thing

I remember my first lessons on world affairs as early as the second and third grades. We had to cut articles out of the newspaper and talk about them. Dominant at that time, more than forty years ago, was strife in the Middle East – mainly between Israel and its neighboring states. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Today, foreign affairs remain centered in the cradle of civilization.middle east

Odds are that you’re disappointed in American Middle East policy. Me too. Do you ever wonder why this part of the world has been so problematic for so long? (Far longer than the years since Israel was established as a nation in the wake of WWII – Thomas Jefferson fought the Muslim Barbary Coast pirates in the early years of America’s nationhood, and Europe has been invaded repeatedly since the beginnings of Islam over a thousand years ago – the current one is far more clever than those of the past.)

There is one main problem that has plagued past, current, and judging by the discussion of the issue in the recent GOP debate, likely future administrations. The problem is that westerners cannot or will not clearly see the driving forces behind the ongoing conflicts.

Our myopia comes from at least two places: a failure to understand human nature and a lack of moral clarity. We often think of humans as rational beings. We aren’t. We are emotional beings with the capacity for reason. This distinction is important to understand the full spectrum of human behavior.

Morally, we have bought in to the concept that all religions, creeds, and cultures have equal standing. They do, in terms of an individual’s freedom to believe as he or she wishes. But they don’t, in terms of the social structure and dynamics that result from those beliefs. The failure to see this distinction makes it impossible to properly evaluate the motives of others and determine the most effective ways to resolve conflicts. In the case of the Middle East, we specifically lack understanding of the inevitable social and political consequences of the religion of Muhammad.

Much of the confusion comes from the inability to discern Islamism from Islam. Western pundits and leaders such as President Obama insist that “Islam is a religion of peace,” sometimes claiming that the word itself means peace. (It doesn’t; it more closely translates as “submission.”) The reality is that Muslims do not represent one homogeneous group, just as do neither Christians nor Jews nor Atheists, but rather hold a wide spectrum of beliefs. Some are westernized, meaning that they have found a way to follow their faith within the context of a modern society such as America that seeks to maximize individual liberty.

Others, such as those attracted to groups such as Hamas, al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Boko Haram, ISIL, and the Muslim Brotherhood, do not fall into this category. They believe that all people must live under Sharia law, which supersedes all other law. Furthermore, they hold that they are commanded by Allah to actively pursue this end. This belief is known as Islamism. It is the motive force behind jihad and dawa (Islamist missionary strategy to change nations from within.)

For some reason, our leaders believe (or want us to believe) that Islamism represents a tiny fraction of the over 1.5 billion Muslims in the world. The evidence contradicts this. Distinguishing Islamists from other Muslims is tricky, as poll results regarding beliefs vary. The best I can figure from the data is that out of the 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, maybe 200 to 500 million of them are truly Islamists. That, of course, is well sufficient to present real and present danger to all who disagree with them. Especially considering that among them are the leaders of nations such as Iran.

The inability to distinguish Islamists from other Muslims was behind the recent flap around Dr. Ben Carson’s comments on the topic. He very rationally explained that he did not believe that a Muslim who believed in the traditional tenets of the Koran would qualify to be President of the United States. He is factually correct, because the oath of office requires loyalty, first and foremost, to the U.S. Constitution. A traditional Muslim would be unable to comply. That his statement was viewed as controversial shows that our society is not currently capable of making this distinction; as a result to many it appeared as though he made a blanket “racist” statement about all Muslims. (There’s more going on underneath this, but we’ll have to save that for another time.)

To be fair, it’s a tough task to discern truth amidst the swirl of invective that comes from all sides. So how do we reasonably assess both the realities of the Islamist threat and the most effective policies to protect our people and our way of life?

Here are a few assertions that I offer for your consideration:

  1. Islamists are more numerous, and more powerful, than ever.
  2. The Islamist worldview is incompatible with the tenets of the U.S. Constitution and the American way of life.
  3. Islamists are serious about the destruction of western culture, specifically Israel and America.
  4. Islamists will continue their aggressions until they succeed or are forcefully prevented from doing so.
  5. Islamists represent a significant ongoing threat to Americans domestically.
  6. Islamists are fierce and dedicated, but far weaker than the full force of technologically advanced societies.

Maybe these appear obvious to you, or maybe they look like horse pucky. Presidential hopefuls Rand Paul, Bernie Sanders, and Hillary Clinton seem to believe that #’s 3-5 are not true.

Many in the west simply do not believe that Islamists mean what they say. They believe that Islamists are driven by the same motivators as anyone else.  Marie Harf, spokesperson for the Obama administration State Department said: “We need in the medium and longer term to go after the root causes that lead people to join these groups, such as lack of opportunity for jobs.”

George W. Bush said that Iraqis were the same as everybody else, they want freedom. Maybe so. But their ideas of freedom differ from yours, Mr. President.

If some or all of my six assertions above are untrue, I suppose it is most reasonable to continue to withdraw from involvement in the Middle East. The geopolitical realities there are a big mess. The national boundaries currently in place in the region mean a whole lot more to governments than they do to the people who live there. The population of the region roughly divides out into three groups – Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Among these, Muslims are the vast majority. Within that group, they roughly divide into three – Sunni, Shia, and Kurd.

Many of the difficulties there are not just with Islamist intolerance of non-Muslims, but of Sunni and Shiite intolerance of one another. It is an ideological blend incompatible with domestic tranquility, and fleeting moments of peace are only upheld via the fists of strongmen such as Saddam Hussein (we saw what happens when that heavy hand is lifted.)

It is tempting to just leave the whole mess to them and let them sort it out. That may have been possible in the past. It isn’t any more. Why?

Technology.

Islamists didn’t develop or create the destructive technologies that they employ today. But they sure are willing to use them. From IED’s to beheading videos, they have learned how to conduct real and psychological warfare in the most effective ways.

We stand on the verge of the day when Islamists will possess nuclear weapons. Let me ask you this. If and when they get them, do you believe that will show the same restraint that current nuclear-armed governments have?

President Obama called ISIS (he always uses the term ISIL) the “JV squad.” That was before they had successfully established the first Caliphate in 85 years. The significance of this to the Islamist is difficult to overstate. They believe that it signals the beginning of the foretold “end times.” It represents the successful completion of step five of a seven step plan to fully establish Sharia law worldwide. Steps six and seven aren’t pretty. In fact, nuclear weapons would be quite handy to successfully complete those steps.

The nuclear deal with Iran is therefore particularly crucial. The Obama Administration is quite comfortable with arms-length inspections and trusting Iranian intentions and integrity. Are you?

Candidates such as Carly Fiorina, Marco Rubio and Lindsay Graham want to rearm and push the technological and therefore tactical and strategic military capabilities of the U.S. in order to play Wack-A-Mole with bad Islamic actors such as ISIS as they pop up. I’m unconvinced that this strategy will be successful.

It seems to me that the keys for solving Middle East problems lie with Middle Easterners. We need to support those Muslims who oppose Islamism. The problem? There doesn’t appear to be many of those around, at least not in power. Terrorist practices have been quite successful in intimidating all who might stand in opposition.

So here we are. We can’t ignore. We can’t invade. It’s quite a pickle. What do you believe we should do?

What Troubled Boys Can Teach Us

A group from the Allegany Boys Camp, located in the scenic deep woods of western Maryland, recently visited our church. The residential all-year camp was established for boys with emotional and behavioral troubles. The boys and their leaders shared songs and gave us insight into their daily life. I was impressed by some of the powerful techniques they employed to effect positive personal change. Their methods are apt for people from all walks of life in all organizations.

To one degree or another, we are all imprisoned by patterns of thought that limit our functionality, compromise our inter-personal relationships, and rob us of the peace and joy that we are supposed to experience in life. In extreme cases people break free of these chains via a “reset button.” A classic example is the addict “hitting bottom,” whereby they either muster the resolve to make needed changes or die.

In the case of the boys who live in camps such as the Allegany Boys Camp, they may or may not hit bottom. They’ve already been removed from their family environment where they couldn’t learn to function in a healthy way. Instead, they experience life broken down to the very basics as a way to shatter their limiting paradigms. A wilderness camp that lacks electricity or running water suits perfectly.

We take so much for granted in our modern life. We lack perspective about what is truly involved in the creation and delivery of the goods and services with which we are accustomed. We take the people in our lives for granted.  We assume that things will always be as they are, regardless of our personal decision making and behaviors. That assumption is dangerous, sometimes deadly.

The boys at the camp have some clothes and personal toiletries. That’s it. Their days are completely structured. That structure is well thought out. They deal with first things first, like when they wake each morning they make their beds and clean their tents. The boys engage in strenuous challenges that afford them opportunities to learn new skills and make important decisions. Their schooling is reminiscent of “unschooling,” or directed learning from life experiences. (Other than math – the counselors said it was hard to teach math that way.)They take on serious projects like designing and building the large and sometimes elaborate tents that provide them shelter. As they learn, achieve, and grow, they earn privileges. A bunch of other good things happen too.

Of course they gain more perspective about modern life and the important relationships in their lives. They learn that they are not isolated and alone – that others have walked similar tortured walks and emerged victorious. They share serious and not-so-serious experiences, and my guess is that they form bonds unlike they have ever previously experienced in their lives. Their new relationships, skills, and continual accomplishments build self-esteem and confidence. This erodes victim mentality, diffuses anger, and awakes them to the possibility of a brighter future.

The camp’s leaders shared two practices that particularly stood out. First, to accomplish the many tasks necessary at the camp, they employ a three-step process: 1) Plan, 2) Execute, 3) Evaluate. Each part of the process is equally important, and every boy must participate in all three steps. Second, when problems inevitably arise, they confront the issue immediately and together. Nothing is left to fester.

These deceptively simple practices hold power for all of us. In our workaday lives, we often operate unmindfully, at warp speed, and in response to circumstantial demands. We imagine that step two, execution, is what matters most. We give ourselves permission to sweep issues under the rug. This mentality is costly, both personally and corporately in our families and our organizations.

Planning and evaluating suffer under the demands of deadlines and pressures of crisis management. Yet this is where intelligence is both applied and gained. You may hear it said that “life is a marathon.” This may be a disadvantageous way to think. It’s perhaps more powerful to think of life as a series of wind sprints.

Before we do, we think. We take the time necessary to properly plan. Then, when it’s time to execute, we do. We run that wind sprint flat out and give it our all. After, we stop, take a breath and see what we may see. We are intentional about learning from our experiences. We ask good questions, such as: What went right? What went wrong? Why? What do we know now that we didn’t know before? If I had it to do over, what would I do differently? This manner of living our lives, running our teams, and functioning in any corporate activity is far superior to keeping our heads down and mindlessly hamstering away.

We are mostly risk averse. We generally dislike confrontation. We want to conserve energy. For these reasons, the most common disposition is to let things go. What things? Things that bother us. Things that we do that bothers us and things that others do that bother us. We’ve learned to worship our comfort zones, hold our tongues, keep a stiff upper lip, be a team player, don’t make waves, and avoid being seen as a troublemaker. This may be fine for incidental issues. But the ones that recur? They won’t go away on their own. They get worse. When we lack the courage to address them quickly and decisively, they cost us far more.

The culture of the Allegany Boys Camp creates the expectation that issues will be courageously confronted and that these issues are the business of the entire group. One person’s problem is every person’s problem. If families and work teams adopted this mindset and our organizational culture became informed by these practices, I believe that it would lead to higher function and healthier and happier relationships.

Thank you to the leaders and the boys of Allegany Boys Camp. Your generous sharing of your stories inspires me. I hope they inspire you too.

Must Violence Be Everywhere?

On Labor Day I took my family to Mt. Gretna. The plan was to hike the beautiful trails and treat ourselves to ice cream at The Jigger Shop. We did in fact hike, and we did get ice cream. But not at The Jigger Shop.

Not ten minutes before we arrived, it had become a crime scene. We knew something was amiss when police sped past us as we approached. We saw ambulances and speculated that somebody must have had a heart attack. The truth turned out to be worse.

A woman was murdered by an abusive man from whom she had been trying to escape for at least a year. He chased her out of her gift shop and shot her dead in the parking lot of The Jigger Shop. Shortly thereafter he turned the gun on himself. We arrived to see employees and patrons huddled in the nearby places to which they had fled. We learned of the details from bystanders as Life Lion helicoptered the perpetrator out. At this writing he is in critical condition.

The experience had a surreal quality. Maybe it was the contrast between the charming hillside, wooded streets, and storybook cottages, some of which were elaborately decorated with blooming flowers and imaginative sculpture, and the flashing lights, police tape, covered prone body, and the knowledge that no place, no matter how serene, is free from violence. In the aftermath of this experience, it’s clear that violence happens any time in any place.

Since we have lived in our current house there have been at least four separate homes on our street where police have arrived in response to domestic violence. Right now, within the circle of people I personally know, there is a person in hiding from a potentially violent spouse. The experience my family had on Labor Day is sadly not uncommon. Every day it seems that there is a similar story – today it is a beautiful Texas dentist who was murdered. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, someone is physically victimized by their intimate partners once every three seconds.

That’s why I’m surprised to learn that the trend is not towards more domestic violence, but away. This Bureau of Justice Statistics report  cites a 64% decline in the years between 1994 and 2010. This makes sense, as the rate of violent crime is shrinking with the aging of the population. It just doesn’t seem like it. I suppose that’s why we must be careful about conclusions we draw from anecdotal evidence.

Domestic violence has always been a feature of society. Statistics for domestic abuse pose challenges for accuracy, but it is accepted that roughly one third of women and one quarter of men worldwide suffer at least one instance of domestic abuse during their lifetimes. By any measure, the problem is pervasive.

What, if anything, can we do as individuals and a society about this?

There are those who argue for increased gun control, as fewer guns mean less gun violence. The argument may hold water if one can successfully show that it would fall more than the suppressive effect that armed victims have upon perpetrators (individuals, gangs, and governments.) One would also have to show that the policy would indeed keep guns from the hands of criminals and that the net effect would be worth the cost of freedoms and the changing of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

This would also leave unaddressed the fact that the rate of domestic violence is as high or higher among unarmed populations. The issue is not one that will be remedied through legislation – it is already illegal to physically assault another person (at least in our country – in countries that abide by Sharia Law husbands are free to beat their wives.) This problem is like most of our other problems – it is a problem that stems from sickness of the soul.

People who abuse others have likely themselves been abused. It is through their experience that this behavior is normalized or somehow deemed appropriate. They clearly suffer from emotional problems, and these have myriad causes, from the side effects of medicine to genetic disposition. But there is also a clear cycle of violent behavior.

All human beings, like all creatures, can be violent. This includes everyone, emotionally damaged or not. What leads to peace and domestic tranquility is a sense of well-being and safety, an appreciation for the connectedness between people, and a well-developed sense of morality.

Where these things are lacking, violence ensues. An unmarried mother is ten times more likely to suffer domestic abuse than a married one. Welfare recipients are four times as likely, with some studies indicating that as much as 82% of welfare mothers experience abuse. Education and wealth do not inoculate against domestic violence, but they sure do reduce its likelihood.

Yet more school and more money do not provide satisfactory answers to this problem to me – how about you? I suspect we would benefit by something a little more powerful and pervasive. Something more radical.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Jesus Christ was a radical. In a world at least as violent (granted, without guns) than our own, he taught love and peace. In the gospel of Mark 9:50, he described how this works: “You must have the qualities of salt among yourselves and live in peace with each other.” What he meant was that just as salt seasons and preserves food, moral people influence, inspire and elevate those around them.

We can take from this a strategy to deal with the issue of domestic violence (or any other moral issue.) We must start with ourselves. We need to tend to our spiritual health so that we might “flavor” the spiritual health of those around us.

You know what I like best about this strategy? It focuses us on that which we can exert some power – ourselves.

Mr. Trump’s Wild Ride

We’re now knee-deep into the next U.S. Presidential election cycle. To say that the race is interesting is quite an understatement. With huge personalities and even bigger issues, the next fourteen months promise the political ride of our lifetimes.

But it isn’t just theater. If you pay close attention, you can tell a lot about where we are as a society by the goings on. We’ll take it left to right.

Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist who finds the Democrat party too conservative for his tastes, is drawing surprising crowds. (A recent Los Angeles event exceeded 27,000.) Maybe this would be less remarkable if he was a fresh dynamic face a la the 2008 Barack Obama. But Sanders turns 74 next week and is saying the same things he’s said for years. Yet even young people are responding to him.

Perhaps it’s that they simply can’t get their arms around the current Democrat front-runner, Hillary Clinton. Her largest gathering to date has been 5,500. But she has something Bernie does not (aside from fame) – a massive political machine that has been consolidating and building power for 30 years.

Despite that she is not the shoo-in most assumed. She is a deeply flawed candidate, lacking the communication effectiveness and likeability that served her husband so well and burdened with the baggage of decades of near-constant scandal. She retains strong support among those who don’t follow current events – they are accustomed to her surname, they fondly recall her time as First Lady as one of relative peace and prosperity, and heck, it’s time for a woman President, right?

But those who pay closer attention know that she may not remain viable. If the justice system worked with integrity and consistency, she would have already been indicted for egregious breeches of national security in order to conceal her communications when she was Secretary of State. Perhaps in the end she will dodge this bullet. She has all the others. But she won’t if the Obama administration decides that it would be best for its legacy to back someone else.  Even if they don’t, she is dying a political death by 1000 small cuts as the drip-drip-drip of illegally hidden emails continues to emerge in big batches. They may hold no massive revelations, but it is a constant reminder of her ethical and decision-making shortcomings. And there are five months of it yet to go.

Democrat party insiders are seriously worried that she is becoming unelectable and that her nomination would mean handing the Republicans victory next November. The problem is that they have a thin bench. The handful of other potential candidates, Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee (don’t be hard on yourself if you’ve never heard of them, hardly anyone else has either), do not seem to hold answers. It appears likely that Vice President Joe Biden, if he can muster the energy himself at age 73 for such a massive undertaking, will enter the race. If he does, he will likely be the nominee.

The Republicans, in stark contrast, have the opposite problem. There are so many (16 at the moment) vying for the nomination they can’t even fit them in the same debate. The Republican Party bosses desperately want Florida’s ex-Governor Jeb Bush to get the nomination, as this would extend the reliably pliable Bush family insider legacy.

Their problem? Nobody else does. In fact, the mood of republicans is to get as far away from professional politicians as possible, especially entrenched-in-Washington types. This is why Donald Trump, Dr. Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina, none of them ever having held public office, are gaining steam. In a Monmouth University poll of likely Iowa caucus-goers, the three of them together represented a 56% majority, with Trump at 23%, Carson at 18% and Fiorina at 10%.

Donald Trump adds particular zest to the show. He defies accepted Presidential political calculus. He makes all sorts of verbal mistakes, over-simplifies issues, and self-aggrandizes. He’s abrasive to those he doesn’t like, he’s evasive, even testy, when confronted, and as a billionaire he doesn’t exactly check the “knows how I feel” box.

The Washington machine, an unholy conglomeration of the vested interests of the current power structure, prefers their political theater a bit more refined and predictable. They see him as a sideshow or distraction – certainly not serious – a candidate who is bound to fizzle. It’s very possible. But they don’t speak or act like they understand the dynamics behind his rise.

This is because they are elitists. They don’t respect the will of the people. They prefer their oligarchy to representative democracy. Americans hate this. It’s not the founding vision. The resentment is the force behind the Tea Party, the most significant grassroots political movement in over 100 years. The Tea Party has handed the Republicans two landslide elections, one in 2010 and one in 2014. Their message was clear – stop the Washington juggernaut. The Republican Party response has thus far been: “thanks for the votes and the suggestion, we’ll think about that.”

They continue to ignore the message at their own peril. If the Republican machine selects Bush, it will be the end of the Republican Party as it is now constituted; they will go the way of the Whigs. It shouldn’t surprise the insiders that their political ship is listing. But they fall into the same trap as everybody – they can’t see past their paradigm. This always blinds us to reality.

Trump is tapping the vein of discord. Sanders may be as well. Both men speak plain. They say what they really think and they mean what they say. In Trump’s case, he’s a tough and strong advocate for American interests. Sanders shows integrity as he stands on issues even if they have historically been unpopular. Americans are unused to seeing these qualities in their leaders. They are responding with real enthusiasm.

I find the rise of neither Trump nor Sanders, but that of Dr. Carson to be the most interesting and refreshing development thus far. Like Trump, he breaks the mold. Unlike Trump, his style is soft-spoken and humble. He is reluctant to make matters about personalities, his or his opponents. So what might be propelling his growing support?

I hope it is this: he is a man of obvious and unassailable principle and character. He has bedside manner. Like Sanders does with Clinton, this contrasts sharply with Trump.

Americans are not only disgusted with business as usual, they sense real danger. Maybe they’ve seen one or more of the growing number of predictions of impending doom and collapse. (Or they watch The Walking Dead.) Maybe they’re afraid as President Obama’s deal with Iran looks like it will pass through Congress. They fear that if Iran, and by extension Islamic terrorists, obtain nuclear weapons, it spells trouble with a capital “T.”

Maybe they don’t like their investments bouncing around like a Super Ball. Race relations seem to be going in the wrong direction, and now it looks like “Black Lives Matter” advocates are inciting violence against police. The Washington machine is unwilling to close the southern border. All of these, and other factors, are straining our system.

Against this backdrop, people feel desperate for strong leadership. A guy like Trump provides precisely the tenor that attracts frightened people – a strong leader they can trust to slay the dragons for them. The problem is that it doesn’t usually work out so well. Leaders like that eventually slay dragons you like too.

Dr. Carson is not a dragon slayer. He is a healer. He doesn’t fit a previous Presidential prototype. This is also one knock against him – people mistake gentleness for vulnerability. They suspect his lack of political experience means that he will find himself chewed up by the machine. I doubt that. Principle is principle. A person who lives by their principles is not easily dissuaded or defeated, no matter the foe.

We need to talk more about the principles that unite us. We must clarify why they matter and how they should be applied to today’s challenges. Someone thoughtful, courteous, well-spoken, and respectful may be best positioned to lead this conversation. The media certainly won’t. While I’m not at the point of saying that Dr. Carson should be the Republican nominee or the President yet, it’s encouraging that he is doing well.