By Colonel (ret'd) Pat Stogran
I have spent my entire adult life trying to practice the craft of leadership. That was a formidable task for me because, in my opinion, I was blessed with few of the attributes that we have come to expect of our leaders, but I worked hard to develop them.
Then in mid-stream of my professional development as a combat leader in 1994 I had a “Come to Momma” moment in the Former Republic of Yugoslavia, when the so-called leaders of the so-called international community failed big time in living up to the expectations of them by people being murdered by the hundreds in my experience in Bosnia, or by the tens, even hundreds of thousands in Rwanda that they would be protected. This caused me to rethink much of what we understand leadership to be, and who we think the “Leaders” in our society truly are. That experience caused me to separate leaders from extremely ambitious people — those who are inordinately successful in climbing to the top of the food chain in their chosen fields.
Leaders, like careerists, are normally found at or near the top of their respective organizations, like the generals and flag officers of the CAF; that, however, is where the similarities between the popular interpretation of leadership and my personal model ends. In my opinion, a leader does not need to be popular or charismatic, although he/she must have the ability to inspire others. A leader does not have to be a saint — an unreal expectation because nobody is perfect. Moreover, I believe that leadership is not necessarily transportable — a right of passage that once you have successfully “led” an organization that you become, from that time forward, known as a leader and can be expected to move to another organization and repeat the success.
As I reflected in the aftermath of having my leadership bubble burst in Bosnia, I wondered how I might have been able to admire what I perceived to be the strong leadership of general officers in the former Soviet Union or Nazi Germany, as they were leaders in murderous, despotic regimes. I reasoned that if the Nazis or Soviets had won the Second World War or the Cold War respectively, then society would have universally lauded those people as great leaders. So one of the attributes I embraced for my revised personal leadership model is that “Leaders” are winners. One cannot have a winner without competition and war is competition in the extreme, so such a canon would appear to be appropriate. And had one of those despotic regimes won, there is no doubt in my mind that we all would be celebrating those generals as great leaders. So a corollary that fell out of that theorem for me is that leaders serve a greater good. Beyond one’s personal successes, the achievements of good “Leaders” serve the welfare of the team and the fans as much as or more than they seek to satisfy their own ambitions.
At the top of his respective field, Wayne Gretzky, The Great One, should be considered the embodiment of a leader before another accomplished sports leader in the field of athletics, Ben Johnson. In the case of Gretzky, his team as a whole benefitted from his contribution on the ice and the sport as a whole benefitted greatly from Gretzky as a hockey icon. Note that this is just an analogy because it can be argued that Johnson’s accomplishments as a sprinter, despite the doping scandal, offered collateral benefits to the sport and other runners.
I left the Canadian Armed Forces because it was clear to me that we were going to have our asses handed to us in Kandahar. We were bound to fail there for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which was groupthink. A trued “Leader” would have thought critically, had the courage to tell the powers-that-be that we were failing, and come up with some new ideas in order to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan. American LGen Stanley A. McChrystal crossed that Rubicon in 2009, but it was too little, too late, and overshadowed by his subsequent firing for dissing his commander-in-chief. A deduction that falls from this hypothesis is that “Leaders” think differently from the rest of the crowd. A lot of very rich theory has been written in recent years about thought leaders, a term that I believe is redundant because what distinguishes “Leaders” from the mindless masses is how they think.
After I left the military I became much more eclectic in my study of leaderology, a term I embrace because leadership is such a misrepresented phenomenon. One of the first books I read was The Leaderless Revolution, by Carne Ross, a former British diplomat to Iraq who resigned over the U.S.-led invasion of that country. With his vast knowledge and experience in international affairs he examines phenomena like Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring and offers the theory that modern technology has empowered ordinary people to challenge the status quo and suggests that they will be able to take power and change politics in the 21st century.
Although his premise can certainly be challenged by the brutal way tyrants have since dealt with the Arab Spring and how the Occupy movement seems to have withered on the vine, what I found compelling was that the revolutions Ross speaks about were anything but leaderless. To the contrary, in fact, I would submit that there were many, many “Leaders” in each instance. Modern technology simply harmonized the efforts of local leaders who in previous times would have fought their fight for the greater good in isolation, completely unaware that there were people leading similar local movements all over the place.
I have come to realize that activists are the real “Leaders” in our society, and that many of those people we like to characterize as leaders are nothing but the most successful conformists. War is raging in the world, and it seems to me that our so-called leadership is desperately clinging to the status quo.
Notwithstanding the industrial wars that are raging in Ukraine and the Middle East, Canadians seem to have tucked them away in their consciousness as isolated incidents that if we engage in them over there, we won’t be affected here at home. North Korea fires a couple of missiles into the ocean and it sends our populace into a tizzy about ballistic missile defence, and the military industrial complex is laughing all the way to the bank.
Meanwhile cyber wars, information wars, race wars and class wars are threatening us all in our homes while our so-called leadership seems to be as oblivious to that as the world was to gravity before Newton wondered why an apple fell to the ground. If we reverse-engineer the Trump phenomenon in the United States, we can see how Putin’s Russia seems to have been actively engaged in what has come to be known as a “hybrid war” or the Gerasimov Doctrine, named after Chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov.
Russia’s engagement in the industrial wars that erupted in Ukraine and Syria, the hacking of the emails of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee, the planting of fake news and commandeering of Facebook advertisements have also captured our attention of late, but I believe we are failing to see the seriousness of what we are witnessing beyond the flood of refugees across our shared border. We can be sure that Putin has been courting Trump’s ego and enticing the likes of retired U.S. Army LGen Michael Flynn to turn on his country for years now, which has thrown the United States government into a tailspin of potentially catastrophic proportions.
As sure as we can be about that, it would be irresponsible for our leaders not to assume that the Russians are capable of closing down the North American power grid at a time of crisis and flooding our corporate and social media outlets with overwhelmingly confusing propaganda and reams of private and financial information in time of crisis and prepare accordingly.
As I mentioned last month, it appears, the Canadian government is embarking on some form of offensive cyber capability, but it is too little, too late. No leadership there — totally reactive. Real leaders should be constantly looking for ways of gaining an edge over their adversaries, not seeking to explain their past failures and doing the same thing we have always been doing, just more vigorously.
As Einstein said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” In my opinion the real “Leaders” today manifest themselves in the form of the Edward Snowdons of this world and the pimply-faced nerdy computer geeks in the Anonymous-like entities on the Internet that are taking on the corporate elite on behalf of the masses. Whether or not they are actually working for a greater good or out of selfishness and are harbouring ulterior motives remains be seen, and we may never know if “they” are not the ultimate winners.
Let’s hope that happens, because until our leadership stops putting getting promoted or elected ahead of the greater good of human kind and the way we reflect that as Canadians and as a Nation, things are likely going to get a lot worse before there is any hope of them getting better.