In the bitterest of historical ironies, the only monarch in Israel’s history to be called the Great was Herod, a consummate psychopath. Herod killed so many of his own family that the emperor Augustus joked that it was better to be Herod's pig than his son.
Herod’s “greatness,” such as it was, derived from architecture. He was a great builder of structures, including the famed temple in Jerusalem, but he was also a horrendous destroyer of lives. Nevertheless, he is, to this day, called Herod the Great.
The only king of Israel who merited the honor of being called the Great was not the maniacal Herod, to be sure, but a complex and controversial man who predated Herod by a thousand years, David of Bethlehem.
Even those dismissive of the Bible cannot deny that David is among the most famous names in world literature. Were David nothing but a myth, his story would still be the stuff of the greatest of legends. Giant slayer, warrior chieftain, outlaw, mercenary, lover, poet, musician, and sometime prophet, David is great by any measure.
The arrogance of making experience into a theology that trumps Scripture is exceeded only by the arrogance of making lack of experience into a theology that trumps Scripture.
In Irvine Welsh's dark Scottish novel Trainspotting, a bum living in an abandoned train station tells others he is watching for trains. Of course it is useless. It is useless there, at least, in that abandoned station. Trains still run elsewhere in Scotland. Just not there.
Here is a simple truth: Just because trains don't run past your house doesn't mean there's no such thing as trains. Furthermore, if there are no trains where you are, why not check out other, more active train stations? Trainspotting for cave dwellers is dismally disappointing business, and train denial is absurdly arrogant.
I believe in fasting. I also believe in feasting! Thanksgiving is all about the latter. A feast is a sacred gathering of joy, abundance and relationships. The Judeo-Christian culture recognizes that fasting, the discipline of self denial, is an important part of seeking and serving God at a deeper and more intimate level. Likewise our culture also embraces celebration as a real part of worshipful living.
This year at Thanksgiving I intend to celebrate. I mean it. CELEBRATE! I am going to rejoice with my family and enjoy a great feast and remember God's goodness and grace. I urge you to do the same. Feasting is a statement of faith because it slaps down hoarding which is a factor of fear. If I'm afraid that what I have, is all I'll ever have I tend to grasp it, parsimoniously doling out crumbs to make it last. If I can trust God for more, if I truly believe He will provide tomorrow as abundantly as He has for today, I can feast with joy. Of course, one cannot feast every day any more than one can fast every day. To everything there is a season. There is a time to fast. There is also a time to feast.
When Seutonious, the Roman historian, explained the downfall and death of Marc Anthony, he blamed a flaw in Anthony's character as much as the strategy of his enemy, Octavian. In his pathology of Anthony's astonishing political and military collapse, the historian of the Caesars employed an intriguing Greek word. Literally translated, eklusis simply means to unstring a bow. Figuratively, however, it implies a loss of focus and the resulting loss of energy.
When a bow is strung, energy is in the bow. Unstrung, it loses all its energy. An unstrung bow is hardly more than a stick with a string attached. The energy is in the tension, in the taught string and the bent bow. Furthermore, a strung bow is ready to be used for its purpose. Unstrung, the bow is unprepared for much of any immediate use. Between the unstrung bow and the launching of the arrow, there is now a missing step of preparation and the restoration of energy.
This "unstringing" process is often a matter of distraction. Living in luxury in the Eastern half of the Roman Empire, indulging himself with Cleopatra, and according to Seutonious, frequently staying drunk, Marc Anthony quite obviously forgot the point. Soft, distracted and unprepared, Anthony, could not hope to defeat the ferociously energetic and obsessively focused enemy, who was to become Caesar Augustus.
It is difficult to separate tradition from history with regard to the various waves of persecution endured by Christians under the Roman Empire. The numbers of Christians crucified and thrown to wild beasts may be exaggerated, as some maintain. Perhaps. That this happened in some numbers is undeniable. The first emperor to launch an official state-authorized assault on Roman believers was probably Nero. After an incredibly destructive fire, the rumor spread that the emperor, insulated from the death and devastation, cared nothing for the pain of the people. Hence the statement, probably more apocryphal than historical, "Nero fiddled while Rome burned."
Last week in The Leader's Notebook, I wrote about three ships and how their leaders, read captains, performed or failed to perform in the line of duty. If you missed that edition I hope you will go back and check it out here. This week I want to consider two more "leader-ships." These two were failures; one of which was an absolute catastrophe, and one that was used for political purposes. Both are highly educational for those in leadership.
I. The Vasa Ship
In 1628, the king of Sweden was Gustovus Adolphus. Intimidated by the great naval powers of Europe he decided Sweden should burst onto the stage with a resounding statement. King Adolphus commissioned the Vasa ship and ordered that it be one of the greatest seagoing vessels of the day. Furthermore, he wanted it to be a veritable work of art, a ship so beautiful that his neighboring monarchs would see what a sophisticated and creative nation Sweden was. Of course, he also wanted the ship's ordinance to be so impressive that his contemporary monarchs would get the message that Sweden's king was a power to be reckoned with.
Of all the Christmas carols beloved of millions, one makes absolutely no sense to me at all. It is a folk song, so there is no one to blame, and its staunchest defenders appeal only to its traditional place in the catalogue of Christmas culture. It apparently was created in Derbyshire, England sometime in the 17th century and the melody is an off-spring of “Greensleeves.” It is beautiful to hear especially in a choral arrangement. The problem is the lyrics.
In most forms the words make reference to ships sailing in to Bethlehem. That is a bit problematic since that Holy City is land-locked. I suppose that some village minstrel in the 17th century jolly old is to be forgiven for envisioning Bethlehem as a far away and exotic version of Portsmouth. Then there is the issue of the ships. We're they carrying the wise men? Perhaps they were actually camels, the ships of the desert. Really? That's a stretch. Someone suggested they represent the Trinity. On ships? The Trinity? Oh, come on!
No, the bottom line is, “Three Ships” is a sweet old tune we will continue to sing at Christmas and simply ignore the fact that we have no idea what it means. I'm okay with that and I will bask in its beauty at Christmas and simply not think about it too much. In fact I am actually pretty adept at not thinking overmuch about anything, especially obscure things.
However, I bet I know what YOU are thinking right at this moment. Why is he writing this now when Christmas is hardly on anyone's mind? I am choosing the metaphor of three ships for a lesson on leadership and the meaningless old carol came to my mind. That's it. So, forgetting Christmas until it’s colder, consider with me three ships and leadership lessons they offer.
I. The Costa Concordia
On January 13, 2012, Captain Francesco Schettino drove his ship up on the rocks just off the shore of Isola del Giglio, an island northwest of Rome. I referenced this wreck in the introductory pages of ReLaunch.
Immigrants often express a shared dilemma: an inner conflict between the need to fit in, to belong to their new country, or at least to survive in it and the fear of losing their own roots. This clash within themselves is a deeply troubling, even painful identity crisis which is not easily or quickly resolved. Indeed, this struggle may persist across generations or even centuries. On the one hand, they long to belong where they live. They want to be a part of the society in which they now work and raise a family. On the other hand, they cannot simply jettison their entire former cultural selves. Culture is a complex tapestry of clothing, food, music, language, architecture and an entire value system informed by such realities as religion and history.
I met an elderly Greek woman in a souvenir shop in Florida who could speak only a few words of English. Her clothing was so typical of her country of birth that one might have assumed she had just come to the United States. However, her grandson told me she had lived in America for more than half a century. He, by the way, could speak hardly any Greek, and admitted with a shrug that the two of them had hardly any real relationship at all.
Hers was the immigrant dilemma. Her family are Americans. Her grandchildren do not think of themselves as Greeks or even in some hyphenated way such as Greek-Americans. Just Americans. She feels out of place. She looks for things that seem familiar. She lives where she lives because she has no choice, but it is strange territory. She still cooks dolmades and moussaka and most of her family eats it but she knows her grandchildren prefer hamburgers and french fries.
Ok, I want some interaction on this blog. Maybe help is a better word. I'm formulating a list of outrageous theological statements, or statements that at least sound outrageous at first glance. I have come up with a burgeoning list but I want more. Today's Notebook is a tease, or perhaps a plea. Today I will briefly discuss just a few of the outrageous truths on my list in an attempt to prime the pump of public participation. A dear friend of mine, whose day-to-day thoughts are pretty outrageous, has contributed already. What I'm requesting is that you read these and add some truths of your own. I may cobble them together into a small book. I may use them in teaching. I may just amuse myself and some of my more outrageous friends.
The idea is this. Make statements that are right but do not sound right, or may not sound right until they are explained. The more outrageous they sound the better. The thing is, though, they have to be true. Anybody can think up outrageous theological nonsense. The question is, can you think up outrageous sounding truth? Here are a few sample "outrageous truths." Read these and then let me see your contributions. How outrageous are you?
Leaders and constituencies both religious and secular are floundering in the complex communications landscape of the early 21st Century. The prevailing cultural mosaic is an awkward marriage of hyper-tolerance and a Puritanical demand for absolute devotement to some "party line," a particular theological perspective or a specific denominational mantra. In other words, each sub-culture sees perfect, absolute adherence to the tiniest bits and pieces of its philosophical agenda as of far greater importance than pragmatic leadership.
RELAUNCH: HOW TO STAGE AN ORGANIZATIONAL COMEBACK
by Dr. Mark Rutland
The demise of Oldsmobile is a textbook example of a company getting ahead of itself and changing its message before it had a new market to align with the new message. Management at Oldsmobile realized that it had a specific market that wanted a specific kind of car. For decades they had been convinced that there would always be people who wanted Oldsmobiles, and that those people would always want Oldsmobiles to look like Oldsmobiles. They did quite well with that market. The problem was that they were securing a growing share of a shrinking market. The people who wanted Oldsmobiles were elderly, and they were dying. Young people didn't want Oldsmobiles.
Seeing the handwriting on the wall, Oldsmobile hired an advertising agency to create a last-gasp, hail-Mary campaign to
I am haunted by the smoky notes of the late Billie Holiday. Hardly any voice in the jazz world reaches me as hers does. Of all her songs perhaps my favorite is All of Me. Other artists have covered the tune, including such disparate singers as Willie Nelson, Paul McCartney and even The Muppets, but no one can touch Billie Holiday. Here are a few lines of this famous jazz classic.
All of me.
Why not take all of me?
Can't you see
I'm no good without you?
You took the part that once was my heart,
So why not take all of me?
Paraphrasing only a bit, those simple lyrics ask one of the crucial questions of leadership: Why not all of you?
The seas of human life, so lashed as they are by storms of crisis and controversy, are where real leaders do their duty. Happily-ever-aftering only happens in the movies. Real life, and therefore real leadership, is actually one storm after another punctuated by brief and very welcome periods of calm. Once a leader finds the maturity and experience to face that honestly, the stormy seasons become immensely less stressful.
Until that threshold is passed, every storm feels like the "big one," the once in a lifetime, storm of the century that just has to be lived over and "normality" will return. Such naive leaders spend way too much energy trying to figure out why this storm has come upon them. They agonize uselessly over imponderables. Why this storm at this time? Why me? Did I sail the wrong sea? Are the very elements conspiring against me? In other words, is this storm part of some
In the mid-1950's, the inimitable Willie Nelson wrote a song called “The Party's Over.” He used it mainly as the closing song for a band he was with at the time. He did not record the song himself until 1966, at which time it sold, not like a blockbuster, but fairly well, peaking at number 24 on the country music chart. Who actually made the song world famous, however, was not a singer but a retired quarterback turned sports announcer.
Don Meredith, who had quarterbacked the Dallas Cowboys, became the third partner of the founding Monday Night Football triumvirate. The other two on that celebrated broadcast team were Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford. When the outcome of a Monday Night contest would become apparent, perhaps even a runaway, Meredith would begin to sing “The Party's Over.” It was an overnight sensation and it was always funny.
Here are some of the lyrics.
Turn out the lights.
The party's over.
They say that all good things must end.
Call it a night.
The party's over.
It's an easy song to sing from the broadcast booth at someone else's game. When you're down on the field, bloodied, playing your guts out and apparently headed toward defeat, it's not fun to sing and it's not funny.
I have read a zillion articles on visionary entrepreneurism, on when and how to launch a start-up. Such books are inspirational and motivational and nothing I say hereafter should detract from their benefit. I myself wrote a book called Launch Out Into The Deep and another called ReLaunch.
Less, much less in fact, has been written about when to turn out the lights. Everybody loves a party and starting a party is especially fun. The end of a party is not always so nice. By the end of the night, cleaning up, closing down, getting the hangers-on to go home, and turning off the lights is not very exciting.
From his perch in the broadcast booth, Don Meredith always seemed to discern the exact moment when, for all intents and purposes it was over, when the odds of a come-back were simply too overwhelming. What about in leadership? How do we know when to call it a night? Knowing when to go to a new leadership opportunity is actually much easier to know than when to leave one.
Here are some thoughts on heading for the exit.
Labor Day is a much loved three-day weekend in the United States. This national holiday speaks of grilling out, family picnics and summer's last hurrah ahead of the harsh realities of back to school and even the winter to come. However, the labor it celebrates just may not be as beloved as the holiday itself. I certainly understand everyone loves a special day off and Labor Day comes at a particularly beautiful “end-of-summer” moment. Family fun and one last fling at the lake are a welcome weekend to be sure, but what about labor, the work from which we take the weekend off? The value of the holiday is self-evident to a recreation-minded culture such as that of the US. Work itself? Maybe not so much.
In fact, there is an actual anti-work message that percolates through Western culture at certain levels. Often it is expressed as a sort of joke, a playful poke at the Protestant work ethic.
Why do the speed-to-market folks struggle so with the people up in legal and accounting? Why does the church administrator think the music director is the anti-Christ? What makes a security guard so deeply resentful of a professor who just wants her classroom unlocked for an evening class?
A friend told me about the disastrous apology of a business colleague. He said, "I wasn't expecting an apology and didn't even want one. In fact, what he did was very minor, not really worth an apology. All he did was make things worse. I wasn't even angry before, but now I am. Now I want an apology. I deserve an apology."
"What went wrong?" I asked.
"His ‘apology’ is what went wrong. It wasn't an apology at all. His idea of an apology is my idea of a personal attack."
As silly as all that may sound, it is actually not that uncommon. Since none of us are perfect, we had better master the art of making a good apology. More than one apology, so called, has just made things worse, lots worse. If you're perfect, read no further. Otherwise, here are some keys to making a good apology. My suspicion is, unless you live on a deserted island, it’s a skill you'll need before you reach the finish line.
1. Apologize for what you did, not how the other person reacted. "I'm sorry I made you angry," is no apology at all. It just means I find it regrettable that you are so emotionally crippled that you got angry. "I'm sorry I told about the surprise party. What an idiot I am.” Now that's an apology.
This column ends with the report of a college professor who should be severely reprimanded, at the very least, for a new grading policy he has announced. I'm telling you that here at the beginning of this column but I'm withholding the details to the end. His students should rise up as one and demand he reverse the policy he has announce. Their parents should demand it. The university where he works should be outraged. I'll tell you all about him but not now. At the end of this column I'll tell who he is what he is doing to his students.
The term "snowflake" has been frequently used to describe college age Americans, so frequently that it has become hardly more than a pop cliche. It would have been laughable had it not been so sad to behold college students' need for special rooms where they could color and cuddle teddy bears just to live over the horror of seeing Hillary Clinton lose the presidency. Then came the demand for "safe spaces" where they wouldn't have to hear ideas or opinions different from theirs, ideas that would upset or, God forbid, challenge them to actually think.
Two very different events happened on July 31, forty years apart: the first in 1941 and the second in 1981. How strange to me that I was not yet born when the first of these events occurred and I was a married man well into my thirties at the time of the second. The first one seems like ancient history played out by diabolical figures in some kind of horrific and far-fetched movie. The second I remember well as a major news item of my young adult life.
The "huge" and massively-reported event of July 31, 1981 is, by comparison with the 1941 historical moment, so flimsy as to be meaningless. The two events seen in juxtaposition make clear in a quite startling way the difference between famous and important. One event was a secret meeting unknown at the time to any but the attendees. The other was televised, radio-ized, written about, and argued over by talking heads within minutes of its conclusion.
I am fascinated by the story of Moses. His is a story of rags to riches and back to rags and then on to an unimaginable leadership opportunity which was actually an unimaginable leadership burden. This in turn led to a national opportunity, which was tragically missed, followed four decades later by another chance which was seized by a second generation but in which Moses was not allowed to participate. He was born in a slave hovel, raised in a palace, lived in a desert, died in the mountains and is buried in an unmarked grave which is not even in the country with which his name is