The Genesis:3 Project
He himself passed before them and bowed low to the ground seven times until he was near his brother. Genesis 33:3
This past weekend was Memorial Day here in the United States and we honored those whose lives were given in service to our country. Overwhelmingly, the ultimate price was paid by young men and, increasingly, young women. Their courage and sacrifice was demanded of them, just as overwhelmingly by older men and, increasingly, older women.
The type of courage they exhibited was mostly forced on them. Certainly, they trained for it and certainly, they understood their mission. But that kind of courage, too often validated by tragedy, is of a different sort than the voluntary acts of valor that distinguish a leader. More often, that brand of courage emerges from previous failure of judgment or of heart.
I don’t mean to give credence to the sort of epic failure-begets-success stories that are merely clickbait. The most familiar is the list of Abraham Lincoln’s failures before he was elected President. Much of that list is exaggerated and all of it ignores the accomplishments that occurred simultaneously in his ascent to the top. From inventors to rock and roll stars to authors whose overnight success takes decades, perseverance is more usual than courage.
True courage comes from facing a challenge that requires coming to terms with the consequences of past shortfall. Any kid who fell off a bike and got back on knows that kind of courage. Anyone who shoplifted a comic book or candy bar and goes back to the store to admit it, who accepted an unwanted sexual advance from a boss and then risked the gain to call him out, who betrayed a confidence and much later risked a friendship to apologize has discovered genuine courage.
Here is an example: General Martin Dempsey was the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the capstone on a long career in the Army in which he was increasingly responsible for the lives of tens of thousands of those aforementioned young men and women. The hardest part of his commands, he will tell you, was dealing with the casualties. No loss was acceptable, yet it fell to him to offer perspective to grieving family members and comrades. Unhappy with platitudes, he sought to inspire memories with a simple phrase – Make it matter.
On his desk sits a box with that motto engraved on the top. Inside are cards, each with the name of one soldier whose life was lost under Gen. Dempsey’s command. During his service, as well as during his retirement, he has taken on the mission on behalf of each lost life to make it matter.
The loss of life during war is unavoidable, and too often it is the necessary price for a just cause. Perhaps it is an understandable inclination to accept the inescapable and move on. But a true leader will confront the circumstances of an unacceptable loss and do his or her best to reconcile as part of the mission to move forward. Marty Dempsey is that kind of leader.
So was our father Jacob, as it turns out. He hoodwinked his brother and his father decades earlier and then made a name for himself in a distant land. When it was time to return to his home, he found himself responsible for his role as provider and protector of the family he led, but facing the unresolved deception of the family of his origin. Caught between courage and consequence, he makes a remarkable show of valor and contrition at the same time. Passing before encampments of his wives and children, he steps forward to defend them against any hostility – a remarkable display of daring – and simultaneously effaces himself in approaching his brother. Both acts are genuine – there is neither bluster nor rationalization.
Too much leadership these days involves pretending that past deficiencies were the result of circumstances, incompetent partners or personal hostility from others. Puffing up like a blowfish and pointing a finger (or a fin) at villains past or present fools all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time. Leaders are much more credible when they own up to the consequences of earlier days and, as a result, stand better prepared to meet the challenges ahead.
More leaders like Gen. Dempsey would mean fewer people to remember on Memorial Day.