“You Gotta Be Great!”
There’s a theme to all of these Writing Wednesdays posts, and the theme is Resistance: what it is, how it attacks us, how we can beat it. Here’s an insight that struck me with blamm-o impact last week:
I was in Washington, D.C., with Maj. Jim Gant of the U.S. Army Special Forces and Chief Ajmal Khan Zazai, a tribal chief from Paktia province in Afghanistan. We were speaking on the subject of “tribal engagement”—a new military/cultural strategy for Afghanistan—at the Naval Academy, Marine Corps University and several think tanks. (If you’re at all curious about this, click on “One Tribe At A Time” in the header of this page or scan through the “Interview w/Tribal Chief” posts.)
What “tribal engagement” entails, at least the way our threesome was positioning it, is that a small team of U.S. troopers embeds itself with an Afghan tribe and becomes part of the community, living with the tribe, working with it, supporting it, fighting and dying alongside it. It’s a bottom-up strategy for producing security, justice and good governance. Maj. Gant had achieved success using this strategy with his Special Forces team on a prior tour in Afghanistan. That was what he was speaking about to the Marines and midshipmen last week. Onstage, he was trying to be cool and objective, presenting the concept in an impartial, professional manner. But his passion kept getting the best of him.
Midway through each speech, Maj. Gant started recruiting. He started firing up the troops. His eyes got big and the veins popped out on his neck. “You gotta be great! You have to be great every day or you’re dead and so am I. Don’t lie. Don’t ever lie, because they [the Afghan tribesmen] will see right through you. They know you better than you know yourself. If you promise something, deliver—because if you don’t you will lose everything including your life.”
Maj. Gant’s mission wasn’t to enlist anybody. The Tribal Engagement program isn’t even in place yet. But he couldn’t help himself. “I want three years from you. That’s your commitment. Not seven months, not twelve months. I’ll send you home for thirty days a year and then you’re back with me in the shit.”
It won’t surprise you, I’m sure, to hear that, each day, as soon as Maj. Gant finished, he was swamped by Marines and midshipmen. “I’m in, Major.” Sign me up, sir!” At night, when he got home to his quarters, his inbox was overflowing with e-mail addresses. “Take me, sir.” “Here’s where you can reach me.”
Now: what does all this have to do with writing or art or entrepreneurship?
Attitude. Attitude in the face of Resistance.
Each day, when we stateside warriors confront our fears of failure (or success), of exposure, of loss or humiliation, of all the outcomes that terrify us in our art and our lives, why not call on Maj. Gant’s attitude?
“You gotta be great! You can’t settle for mediocre, or almost-good or half-assed. Every day you have to be great or people are gonna die.”
Watching those Marines and midshipmen jump out of their seats and swarm around Maj. Gant, it was clear to me that young men and women’s hearts today (and some of us who are not so young) are starving for challenges worthy of their secret, limitless capacities. They’re ravenous for a call to greatness—even in something as obscure and potentially thankless in terms of public recognition as being part of a team of infantrymen slogging into the back of beyond to help people who may in the end only hate us and even murder us.
Who’s going to be your Maj. Gant? Who’s mine? There’s only one inspirational leader for either of us, and he or she is staring back every morning from the mirror.
One definition of leadership is the capacity to recognize the aspiration for exceptionalness in the souls of our troopers—and then put words and deeds to that imperative. Summon it. Call it forth by action and exhortation. Maj. Gant did that last week for those young Marines and midshipmen—and each of us needs to do it too, for ourselves. Inspire ourselves. Call ourselves out. Self-initiate, self-motivate, self-validate.
“We gotta be great!”
Sign me up, Jim (no, wait … make that Steve). I’m ready to go.