Strength and Soldiers

Strength and Soldiers

A novel but useful way of looking at authority is to consider two countries at opposite ends of the world and their use of the ‘military’. In the United States the President will go down in the annals of appalling management for threatening the States with military action to enforce curfew. Military action is extreme. It should seldom be threatened. It should never be threatened unless it is genuinely to be carried out. Empty threats are just that, empty. And they leave the threatner even emptier. Washington is weaker for that pointless gesture.

Meanwhile, in New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was faced with a bit of incompetence which resulted in three more cases of Covid-19 after a three week respite from the disease. She immediately called in the military to oversee the isolation of those returning to New Zealand. The people applauded her swift, decisive action and breathed a sigh of relief that management seemed to know what it was doing. The Beehive buzzes better for that decisive move.

There are good lessons to be learnt from this Tale of Two Cities.

The lessons don’t apply only to rulers of countries. Their two contrasting performances are the story. The practice lies in every manager’s control, in every dysfunctional organisation, in every disrupted home. Good management today is not weaker than it was in the days of shout and shoot, it is stronger – but it is also more intelligent. It thinks before it speaks. Cooperation and collegiality spring from good judgment which, in turn, depend on thinking of a high order. So why has the thinking deteriorated in some places and improved in others?

Is it because brains in certain countries have got addled? Possibly. To have a third of 360 million people supporting Trump doesn’t suggest deep wisdom for at least that part of society. Is it because self-interest has overridden society’s interests? Possibly. Competition is a great knife sharpener but sharp knives need disciplined owners if they are not to become dangerous. Is it because America has lost her way, as Kishore Mahbubani so lucidly explains in his book Has China Won? Almost certainly, I would say. The cause of a lost way is lack of strategy, perhaps even a failure to understand what strategy means any more.

The strength of soldiers has not disappeared. Formidable forces can still blow the world apart. There aren’t too many people wanting to do that yet. Soldiers can be used tactically, too, as PM Ardern has shown. But the real competition – battles, if you like – in the future are trade and wealth. They are the keys to climate correction, to shuffling off the age of slavery, to world sustainability. Investment is still the source of future control. The Victorians saw it and built railways. We see it and build solar farms. My great grandchildren will see it and build ladders to the sky.

What investment must every wielder of authority now make to steady the fragile raft of economy in its ferocious sea? She or he must think about two things we seem often to have forgotten.

First, the purpose of where we are heading. It isn’t immortality (yet), it isn’t unencumbered democracy nor unattainable, unchallenged autocracy, and it certainly isn’t more and more stuff. It is a tenable international society of reasonable fairness, of wit-expanding, but not standards-destroying, competition and of time to enjoy what a fantastic gift life is while we still have it. In other words a compromise between what you want and what I want. So simple, really.

Second, the real transaction of life. Intellectually we understand this is not what we get but rather what we give. Trouble is, that seems to fall apart once we are in the chain-gang of acquisition. You don’t have to be KKR to know what folly overreach is. It is common sense. The real transaction of life is not in the philosophies but in the practice. It is every second of time, every thought of value, every word of command. We talk of investing time but seldom of investing thought. The real transaction of life is achieved only when we invest thought.

When the balance of that thought is always more for the other person than for oneself, it is a light bulb switching on and glowing in the dark.

When the judgment is of ‘what will work’, it is a lighthouse of guidance through the gloom.

When a decent guiding hand is there for each of us it is a balanced world.


On 20Jun20 at 1030am Singapore time I shall be having a fireside chat with Yen-Lu Chow, Co-founder and Director of the Asia Institute of Mentoring and Lita Nithyanandan (Moderator), Managing Director of the Behavioural Consulting Group on the subject of

What we want from new leaders – post crisis.

I invite you to join in, engaging to challenge my possibly antediluvian views.

Register here.