“Use your authority over others constructively”

Maarja NARA A1 entrance 050213 cOn Sunday, I socialized with some of my 92 year old Mother’s friends.  They smiled to hear me describe how I proudly wore a Haapsalu shawl she knit for me during the 1970s to a recent event at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).   You glimpse it in images of my guest Tim Mulligan and me in a stop action video of the event.  I lack the skills to make such a shawl and cherish my Mom for the amazing things she has done and still is able to do.

How people react to the very old–whether they marginalize them or think of how they themselves, if lucky, will live on past retirement age, depends on the individual.  Because I had spent the day with Mom and the elderly, I shook my head yesterday when I read a post, “Technical Literacy:  Can Everyone Learn to Code?”   Yes, I’m about to question the wrong links, as I often do in my Social Media use.  I know the cool kid thing to do would be to praise the young man in my Twitter feed.  But I praised on Twitter others who used their knowledge and authority more constructively, instead.

Technical skills are important to job seekers, for economic reasons, and for progress.  But to write about “everyone” learning to code is silly, shortsighted, and written from the privileged viewpoint of someone who believes there are endless opportunities ahead for all people.   People such as my 92 year old Mom, long out of the job market, and facing the inevitable decline of the very old, don’t fit in to that privileged view.

The author seemed to have a moment when he realized that when he wrote, “Perhaps it’s cruel, or naive, to recommend that everyone, all 7.086 billion of us, learn to code when expensive schooling and the thousands of hours required are just unavailable to most of us.”  (Yes, he linked to the “world population.”)  But he went on from there to jump on the predictable bandwagon, with nary a moment to refine his appeal from “everyone” to who would benefit from and contribute in the workplace from learning to code.  Does that mean someone such as my Mom, who obviously will never learn to code–she doesn’t know how to use a computer–is a failure?  Of course not!

A thoughtful Twitter exchange last week with @sally_j about who still snail mails prints of photos in this day and age reminded me that not everyone is insular.  I love those comfortable convos on Twitter, where someone says this, I say that, and we talk it over.  We chatted about a Lifehacker article in which a writer wrote, “everyone is on Facebook” and asked why anyone still prints photos.  I loved the way @sally_j chatted about the spectrum of photo users (I mentioned Mom) and she closed out the convo by saying, “coolio.”  In the 1950s, it would have been “cool, daddy-o,” ha.  Progress, I like it!

Better to focus on thoughtful tweeters such as @sally_j than on the misjudgment of well meaning people such as the HuffPo blogger who don’t know how to advocate beyond a small group.  He meant well, there is a good case to be made for learning to code and I’ve seen others make that case well, just in 140 characters on Twitter.  (Follow @digiphile to see some good examples!)  But not everyone can look beyond their shoelaces.  You can wish people would do better but whether they can or not is up to them, not you.

Why do I mention shoelaces?  I re-read today at a Department of Defense website a Memorial Day speech that then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave in 2011.  He told graduates at the Naval Academy that

“great leaders must have vision – the ability to get your eyes off your shoelaces at every level of rank and responsibility, and see beyond the day-to-day tasks and problems.  To be able to look beyond tomorrow and discern a world of possibilities and potential.   How do you take any outfit to a higher level of excellence?  You must see what others do not or cannot, and then be prepared to act on your vision.”

Gates spoke of courage and of avoiding groupthink.

“A further quality of leadership is courage: not just the physical courage of the seas, of the skies and of the trenches, but moral courage.  The courage to chart a new course; the courage to do what is right and not just what is popular; the courage to stand alone; the courage to act; the courage as a military officer to “speak truth to power.”

In most academic curricula today, and in most business, government, and military training programs, there is great emphasis on team-building, on working together, on building consensus, on group dynamics.  You have learned a lot about that.  But, for everyone who would become a leader, the time will inevitably come when you must stand alone. When alone you must say, “This is wrong” or “I disagree with all of you and, because I have the responsibility, this is what we will do.”  Don’t kid yourself – that takes real courage.”

What Gates told the Naval Academy graduates has relevance beyond the armed forces.

“I want each of you to take that lesson of adaptability, of responding to setbacks by improving yourself and your institution, and that example of success, with you as you go forward into the Navy and the Marine Corps you will someday lead.

The qualities of leadership I have described this morning do not suddenly emerge fully developed overnight or as a revelation after you have assumed important responsibilities.  These qualities have their roots in the small decisions you have made here at the Academy and will make early in your career and must be strengthened all along the way to allow you to resist the temptation of self before service.”

Yes, coding is an important skill to learn.  So is the ability to broaden one’s vision and appeal to others in a way that “that transforms all who feel its warmth.”  The young man writing at HuffPo is an advocate; the much older, experienced Gates a leader.  Some advocates whose words we read today will become leaders over time.  Others, regardless of position, will remain stuck in neutral, spinning their wheels in advocacy but not making progress.

At “my beloved NARA” I saw a beautiful sign of progress today in a post shared via Social Media at Prologue blog.  Preservation technician Michael Pierce wrote of his work with veterans’ records at the St. Louis National Personnel Records Center (NPRC).  He focused on the records of U.S. servicemen who fought in the Korean War.   People such as Pierce work behind the scenes, their contributions to the agency not always noted by outsiders.  A recent letter from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command thanked the director of the NPRC for work that led to the identification of the remains of Korean war casualties.

Pierce wrote in his Memorial Day post that

“Some of the names listed were the names of young men whose records I had processed.

Sometimes, I take a quick look at the ages of the men and women whose records I am working on. I realize that most of them are less than half my age. I’ve had a good life so far. Sometimes, their lives ended just when it should have been beginning. Occasionally, I shed a tear.

I know I’m supposed to be primarily concerned with preserving the paper, guarding against the further loss of information on these documents. Still, my sense of humanity creeps in on occasion.”

A post from the heart.  I liked it so much because it was human on so many levels.

The preservation technician at St. Louis isn’t an official leader at NARA, he doesn’t occupy what insiders call a “Red Box” position.   But the Big Dude, aka AOTUS David S. Ferriero, was right early in his tenure when he said that anyone can lead.   (David, too, has written about the same speech by Gates.)  It speaks well of Ferriero’s NARA that links to Pierce’s post were re-tweeted spontaneously not just by me but others in the crowd (and by Chief Records Officer Paul Wester–thank you for that, Paul!) on Memorial Day.

Not everyone will live in to their 90s, as some members of the World War II generation, including my war refugee Mother have done.  She’s still with me, to tell stories of turmoil, hardship, and hope.  In every era, some lives are cut short due to war and for other reasons.  Pierce ended his blog post with a poignant reminder of this, writing,

“Historians are encouraged to look at events objectively, to keep a bit of mental distance from the subject they’re studying. I can do that when I’m on the job until I consider that I’m performing a task that allows these documents to come alive and speak for those who may no longer be with us.

It’s why I do what I do.”

Gates quoted Theodore Roosevelt in his Memorial Day speech in 2011.  “In the long run, [our society’s] success or failure will be conditioned upon the way in which the average man, the average woman, does his or her duty.”  He said leaders have even greater responsibilities.

“Self-confidence is still another quality of leadership. Not the chest-thumping, strutting egotism we see and read about all the time.  Rather, it is the quiet self-assurance that allows a leader to give others both real responsibility and real credit for success.  The ability to stand in the shadow and let others receive attention and accolades.”

Gates acknowledged that some of what he believes about character and integrity and leadership might sound quaint in this day and age.  I sometimes find it a challenge to explain on Twitter or Facebook why I admire people who serve their country well in civilian and military service, both.  Pierce’s blog post brought both elements together.   Leading from within the ranks.  An anomaly in a celebrity chasing age that seems to reward attraction to the shiny?  Or hope for the future?   Time will tell.  You can laugh at me (I don’t mind!) but reading it gave me hope for sustainable Transformation at NARA.

2 responses to ““Use your authority over others constructively”

  1. Howdy Maarja: I want to thank you for your kind words.
    Michael Pierce

  2. You are most welcome, Michael! Thanks for taking the time to read my post. I also left a brief comment under your article at the Prologue: Pieces of History blog. Still in the mod queue but should go up soon! Thanks again!

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