As you may have guessed, I’ve been waxing nostalgic about my time as a military cadet lately. I was a cadet in the Civil Air Patrol for seven years – and, toward the end, also an Army reservist, later national guardsman, later ROTC (college, officers training) cadet.
More than what I did – it seemed at times to be who I was. In other words it was something like software development and testing is to me now.
And yet I have regrets. As my friend Mark tried to point out in order to cheer me up, I staffed encampments, I worked on search and rescue missions (including one distressed find), I served on drill teams, commanded a couple, soloed in a light aircraft before I had a driver’s license, and attended national special activities.
And yet I have regrets. I did a fair amount of ‘dumb teenager’ things. I did a good amount of arguing with my peers and superiors, and more than a few ‘principled stands’ over issues – some of which mattered, perhaps some did not. Years later, through the haze of old memories and the clarity of life experience, I was regretting some of my actions on a military cadet discussion list. A contemporary officer of mine (my elder, he was an officer when I was a cadet, and a cadet in the 1970’s) had something to say that struck me. I think it bears repeating here, and I’d like to thank Elisabeth Hendrickson for encouraging me to blog it:
If you can’t go all out for a lost cause when you’re young, when are you going to do it? When you’re young, aren’t at war, and nobody’s life is on the line, it’s not the victory that matters. It’s the fight.
We have the rest of our lives to compromise and be reasonable. No one should waste their youth being reasonable.
Matt, I would have preferred one of you for every 10 cadet officers I dealt with at that time who sold out and tried to play political games instead of standing up for what was right. It breaks my heart every time I see some young cadet captain sucking up to me or doing something they know is wrong because they think it will get them something they want (which always turns out to be unimportant to them in the long run).
Our society teaches them that you have to accept bad behavior because the people doing that behavior probably can get you something. Even if they can’t, they can probably prevent you from getting it. That’s why so many people didn’t think it was a big deal that the board and NHQ started ignoring the process for reg changes. That’s why congressmen won’t take on the big lobbies. That’s why the press gave Bush a free pass over the war and other things (until the second term when the problems could no longer be ignored). That’s why no one spoke up in the 1980s when the government started to pull apart the regulatory regime installed in the 1930s that had eliminated the “Boom/Bust” cycle that had dominated our economy since this country’s inception. That’s why most CAP members won’t stand up when a commander exceeds their authority…
…and all of that is why this country is in such a mess. Instead of doing the hard thing, everyone wants to take the easy way out, even though, deep down, they know it isn’t really the easy way. Every time we compromise principle for a short term goal, every time we look the other way when someone is abusing their authority or breaking the law, every time we take a short cut instead of doing it right, we tear apart the fabric of our society just a little more.
This nation has plenty of weasels. What we need is more people who aren’t afraid to stick it out there and risk getting it cut off simply because it’s the right thing to do. Thus endeth the sermon. 😆
//end first quote
>A year later, when I have lunch with one of the old managers, he said
>”yeah, matt, I never had a problem with you, but every once in a while
>I’d hear that you went to a meeting and made someone mad…”
That sums up my entire career at (non profit x) in one sentence. 🙂
Anyone who challenges the status quo or refuses to jump on the political bandwagon wins enemies very fast even if they’re right, polite, and effective. The political types see you as a threat because you aren’t acting in a way they can predict (because they truly don’t understand basing decisions on principle instead of expediency). The non-politcal types resent you for demonstrating how gutless they are as they sit there and say nothing in the face of something they know is wrong.
“I mean, who the hell are you to stand up and point out the flaws in the plan? You make us all look bad. [The CEO] doesn’t want to hear about that. He just wants to feel things are going smoothly. Stop risking everyones’ jobs.” (an actual quote from a manager I had to work for when I pointed out that the food distribution points we were using were nowhere near the victims we were supposed to be helping).
Pretty much every great leader was a man or woman who could get away with being principled because their charisma could overcome the bull [poo-poo].
//end second quote
A decade after I ended my cadet days, I quit a volunteer role in a software user’s group because I was increasingly uncomfortable with the lack of transparency and conflicts of interest in the process. I got an email from a leader in the group, saying that he hoped I got a ‘little thrill’ from my ‘principled stand’, that it would hurt my reputation in the community, and he hoped it was worth it, to me.
The leads to Heusser’s rule of integrity: When people are deeply upset because you are standing on principle … you’ve touched a sore spot, and you could very well be doing exactly the right thing.
Not that I’m perfect, or have attained any kind of perfection – far from it, I have made my share of mistakes. AND, a few years later, I’m still glad I quit that committee.
UPDATE: Let us say, in the example above, that there was no integrity issue with the user’s group – it was simply a transparency issue. That the leadership didn’t want to be bothered to explain and make the process public because it would be annoying and extra work – not because of any kind of nafarious cover-up. In that case, we’re not talking about right or wrong – we are instead talking about “easy” vs “transparent.” Which of these is better? This was probably actually the case – should I have still made the fuss?
In that case, we’re talking about values and principles – and it is very possible that someone values one thing over another differently than me. That doesn’t make them a bad or immoral person. But values directly impact the way we do development – see the The Agile Manifesto for concrete examples of this.
The question is – if someone picks something radically different than you, are you willing to have your name on the Marquee? Are you willing to submit and say “I was only following orders.” Some things matter. Some don’t. Can we tell the difference?
Standing up for my principles – as a cadet or a programmer – is just that. Standing up for my principles. But I do believe that some principles are better than others; if all principles are same, we end up the children on the island in “Lord of The Flies” pretty quickly, don’t we?
What do you think?