The New American Crisis

These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; Tis’ dearness only that gives everything its value“.

So begins the opening paragraph of a very famous essay in American history; The American Crisis.  It was written in December 1776 by one of our greatest founding fathers, Thomas Paine.

Thomas Paine did not sign the Declaration of Independence; nor did he help draft our Constitution; he was not an accomplished politician; and he never became a great war hero.  Thomas Paine left his mark on history as the voice of the common man; a gifted writer who stirred the hearts and minds of the Colonists as they struggled for independence.

When Paine penned the first pamphlet of the The American Crisis, he was actually imbedded with George Washington and his troops as they were retreating out of New York.  Washington had lost every major battle in New York and finally succumbed to defeat with the British chasing Washington through Trenton, NJ.  The British held up in Trenton while Washington retreated across and set up camp along the south-western banks of the Delaware river.

The situation was quite dire for the Colonists in December 1776. Many of the voluntary enlistments began to expire in December, so Washington saw a large portion of his forces head back to their farms and families. In addition, inadequate shelter, food, and weapons in the midst of an early harsh winter further tested the waning morale of Washington’s dwindling troops.  The Continental Congress had also began debating if Washington was the right man for the job, and was seriously considering a replacement.  The Revolution, which had begun with such courage and enthusiasm five months earlier, was on the verge of collapse,

Thomas Paine finished the first part The American Crisis in mid-December and when Washington read it he was so motivated and inspired he declared it mandatory reading to the entire Continental Army. He read it aloud to his troops on Christmas night 1776; the night of Washington’s famous midnight crossing of the Delaware during driving sleet and hail. Washington launched a surprise attack and defeated the British at Trenton, NJ;  despite the fact Washington was outmanned and outgunned.

The victory at Trenton was a huge tactical and psychological victory for the Colonists. Though they still had a large difficult road ahead, this victory marked a turning point for the revolution.  Many historians attribute a large portion of this victory to the writings of Thomas Paine.  John Adams even said that “George Washington would’ve never raised his sword hadn’t Thomas Paine raised his pen.”

What I love about this piece of American history was that, in the midst of a deep crisis, it was passionate common-sense inspiration from a common-man that helped turn the tide; simple & eloquent writings that inspired everyday citizens to do the extraordinary.

I believe we’re in the midst of a new American crisis; a crisis of Common-Sense Leadership.  Everywhere we look from our personal lives, our households, our communities, our government; it’s all seems out of control.  There are no shortage of challenges and obstacles.

These problems demand solutions for sure; but these solutions need to come less from the “larger-than-life” public figure and more from you and I.  Our solutions need to be based in a grass-roots, individual based, leadership philosophy.

A leadership philosophy that puts less emphasis on the “charismatic”, and more emphasis on what it means to be calm, confident, consistent, and courageous in every aspect of our lives.

A leadership philosophy rooted in common-sense.

Know Your Place (Remember D-Day)

Knowing your place as a leader has little, if anything, to do with where you reside in an organizational chart.

Instead it has everything to do with fully understanding what you can affect in your current situation as a leader; and consequently putting all of your energy and focus on where you can be the most effective.

Recently a seasoned project manager I work with came to me to vent frustrations in his current role.  His leadership position was especially challenging because he was on a rather large and highly visible project that required him to exert influence in all directions – for the people that worked for him, for those at the same level as him, and for those that he worked for.

His role fit the true John Maxwell definition of a “360-Degree Leader”.  Typically when we think of leadership we think of the one person at the top of the organization.  The reality is, as John Maxwell points out, “ninety-nine percent of all leadership occurs not from the top but from the middle of an organization.”

This project manager was frustrated because he felt that those above him weren’t listening or valuing his extensive experience enough. His perspective was that senior leadership was more concerned about politics and sugar-coating reality instead of dealing with the brutal facts of a slipping schedule and a ballooning budget.

He felt stuck in the middle; trying to influence leadership above him from committing to unrealistic timelines and unworkable budgets while at the same time keeping his team motivated and enthusiastic in the wake of such demanding pressure.

I empathized greatly with this manager; it’s always frustrating when you’re on the front lines and it appears you can see the path to victory more clearly than the “top brass” and you’re unable to influence their decisions effectively.  It’s moments like these that have challenged me the most as a leader.

To put things in perspective for this manager I shared with him an analogy; I told him that his position and situation reminded me of a young infantry platoon commander during the June 6th, 1944 invasion of Normandy (D-Day).

I asked him to picture this young leader who, after Pearl Harbor, volunteered to join the Army in early 1942. Shortly after joining he subsequently married his high school sweetheart, found out his new wife was expecting, and began preparations for his deployment to England.

Once in England in early 1943, this young officer found himself in the middle of one of the largest and most strategically important 14-month planning and training cycles the world has ever seen; setting the stage to drive the Germans from France and ultimately destroy the Nazi regime.

I asked this manager to picture this Lieutenant in the “Higgins” boat the morning of the June 6th, 1944 invasion; he hasn’t seen his wife in for almost 1-1/2 years, he’s never seen his new baby, he’s frustrated at the invasion planners for not listening to him about having the proper winter gear, he knows he will never get home until Hitler is defeated, and he’s worried about dying.  He’s become exceedingly overwhelmed by all of the things he has absolutely no influence over; he’s lost sight on what he can truly affect.

Though he has little direct control over if Hitler will be defeated, the command decisions of those above him, or if he will ultimately live or die; he can choose to set the example and provide leadership to those immediately around him. In that overwhelming moment, the most important thing he can affect is the lives of the 25 men around him in that tiny Higgins boat. Encouraging words, a positive attitude, taking care of our people; all are basic leadership requirements we can’t lose sight of.

As leaders we pride ourselves on seeing the big picture and providing big solutions; but you have to be honest and humble about what you can affect in any given situation.  Focusing too much on the large victory, the overwhelming situations, and the frustrating circumstances takes precious time and energy on what we can truly affect.

When faced with this situation, take a step back and remember “D-Day” and take care of those people and situations that you can most positively affect.

My Friend Jim

I want to tell you about my friend Jim Goodrich.  Jim, who is 85, lives in Enid, OK.  I met him in 1999 while I was stationed at Vance AFB.

Jim Goodrich at 18

Jim is an Iwo Jima Marine.  He never knew his mother – she died when he was only two years old. His father was left to raise him; but as Jim put it his dad was “kind of an alcoholic”.   His father was an oil field worker who spent a lot of time in Oklahoma and Texas.  Jim says he “was handed around until I was old enough to take care of myself. I spent a lot of time by myself, often weeks at a time, going to school on my own and so forth.”

When Pearl Harbor happened Jim was only 15 years old.  He and a couple of buddies tried to enlist in the Marine Corps, lying about their age.  They were turned away by the Oklahoma City recruiter.

Six months later in mid-1942, after Jim had turned 16, he gave his father an ultimatum and told him that he needed to help lie about his age to the Marine recruiter or Jim was going to run away and join the Canadian Navy.   His father reluctantly agreed and seven months later Jim found himself in the middle of Pacific island-hopping campaigns of Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and eventually Iwo Jima.

Of all the Marine battles, Iwo Jima is held in special awe and reverence.  Iwo Jima is a small speck in the Pacific; it is 4.5 miles long and at its broadest point 2.5 miles wide. Iwo is the Japanese word for sulfur, and the island is indeed full of sulfur. Yellow sulfuric mist routinely rises from cracks of earth, and the island distinctly smells like rotten eggs.

The Battle of Iwo Jima (19 Feb – 26 Mar 1945) was one of the bloodiest in WWII.  The island was defended by 22,000 Japanese and it took more than 70,000 Marines to take the island.

Out of the 70,000 Marines there were 26,000 casualties (6,800 killed & 19,200 wounded).

Out of the 22,000 Japanese all but 216 were killed on the island.

To put this in perspective, this one battle produced more US deaths (6,800) in 45 days than the entire last ten years of fighting in Iraq & Afghanistan (6,600).

On the first day of the battle, Jim was now an 18 year old Corporal; a machine-gun squad leader in charge of 12 men.  As the transport hit the beach Jim told his best friend, “See you later tonight.” Jim went left, his friend went right and Jim never saw his friend again.  He never knew what happened to him.

The man in front of Jim was hit in the neck with a bullet the moment they stepped on the beach; as Jim put it, “I don’t remember who he was, but I had to step over him and keep going.  It was total chaos.”

For 19 days Jim fought in this living hell, witnessing unspeakable death & destruction, never once seeing the face of a living Japanese soldier (the Japanese were entrenched in 11 miles of underground tunnels and bunkers).  Not until the 10th of March when he climbed out of a shell hole to be faced with a Japanese  machine gunner about 30 yards away.  “I sure remember his face!”, Jim told me.

Jim turned to get back into cover and remembers having a feeling like “a hot red poker going through my back and out my stomach.”  Jim tried to get up a run after he was hit, but it was no use; his legs gave out on him.

Fortunately Jim fell back into a shell hole and had cover from his attacker.  As he lay there on his back, looking up at the sky and feeling the seeping wetness, he was sure that this was the end for him.

At that moment a Navy corpsman came running by and triaged his wounds, gave him a shot of morphine, and evacuated him back to the beach.

Jim had escaped sudden death, but was nearly killed again with a morphine overdose once he got to the aid station.  Another corpsman was about to give a second (lethal) dose to Jim because the first corpsman hadn’t marked Jim’s forehead with the letter “M”.  Jim was fortunate to be lucid enough during his current morphine stupor to stop the second assuredley fatal dose.

When Jim was finally on a transport to the floating Hospital ship, Jim felt optimistic and hopeful that maybe he was going to be ok.  Yet he was completely dejected and demoralized once reaching the ship when they told him they had no more room.

Jim was sent back to the beach where a doctor crudely put him under the knife in a make shift operating room on the sandy beach head; examining all of his internal injuries and eventually removing five-feet of damaged intestines.

Eventually Jim made it off the beach and back to Guam and Hawaii for five months of rehabilitation; the war was finally over for him.

I’ve seen the scars on his back and stomach; the letter with the bullet holes and brown stained blood he was wearing in his blouse pocket; the letter from the doctor who performed the surgery on the beach – expressing amazement and joy that Jim was recovering well; and I’m humbled and utterly amazed by his story.

I have to constantly remind myself that he experienced all of this between the ages of 16 and 18.  Then I think about what I was doing when I was that old; where my biggest stress in life was if I had to work at my part time job on a Friday or Saturday night.

Every time life gets stressful or frustrating, I try reminding myself of Jim’s story.  Put into perspective, nothing compares to what he went through at such a young age.

Jim today

A couple of weeks ago I was visiting with Jim and I asked him how all of these experiences defined him and his life.  He answered that it didn’t so much define him as it refined him.  He learned how to appreciate every single moment, that life is truly a gift.  Most importantly he said he learned what love was really about; the love he feels and felt for his foxhole buddies is something he said is hard to describe.

We owe a lot to Jim and for the thousands like him who have served; each having their own unique and memorable story.  If you met Jim on the street, you would never know the amazing back story that is his life.  Jim’s request for all of us is to make sure we get those stories from our grandparents, parents, & neighbors; before it’s too late.

Jim didn’t start telling his story until about ten years ago; I’m so glad he decided to share.