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The Weakness of Strength

We admire strength of character, which is exemplified in those special individuals who hold to their beliefs, to their goals, against all odds, in the face of not just defeat, but of undermining doubt, an emotion to which they seem immune. Our legends and myths are filled with such characters: Achilles, Ulysses, Henry V, Joan of Arc, “Stonewall” Jackson, Patton, Gandhi, Mother Jones.  These are people who seemed to have never doubted themselves, who believed in something and acted upon their belief without reservations. Away from battlefields and the international scene, we see such people in everyday life, sometimes on the sports field, sometimes in politics, as business and governmental leaders, often as religious leaders.

A lack of self-doubt can be a powerful source of strength. It need not be arrogant, it may even be quiet. But above all, it is a character trait that eliminates the kind of questioning of the rightness of one’s motives, of the need for certain actions, and of one’s own strength to persist, whether successful or not, that causes lesser beings to dither, to procrastinate, to hesitate and to become irresolute when perseverance, toughness and endurance are called for. It is difficult to defeat such persons.

But absolute clarity of vision and goals is not something that is naturally presented to us by the world in which we live. It requires a certain blindness to alternatives that might divert us from the path we have chosen to take. Such blindness can come from several sources: stubbornness and singleness of purpose seems to be a character trait of some people. Others use a particular set of beliefs, often religion, to gird themselves to resist diversion from the path indicated by those beliefs. Still others align themselves with a person or institution to which they devote absolute allegiance.

We often think that we need such strength of character, defined in this sense of supreme confidence in oneself and one’s beliefs, in our leaders. The truth is that is probably a more valuable trait in followers than in leaders. Studies of successful CEOs, for instance, have shown that, compared to less successful CEOs, they are more willing to re-evaluate their decisions and are ready to change direction when what they have chosen to do looks wrong. Some of our most successful presidents, such as Bill Clinton, have distinguished themselves by their willingness to compromise. Hitler, on the other hand, famously persisted in his advance into Russia, even when winter was approaching and all the signs were that he was sending his troops into disaster. Religious fundamentalism, regardless of the religion, is often characterized by its rigidity and its refusal to consider alternative beliefs or evidence that its worldview may be flawed. Its leaders are sometimes willing to lead their followers into situations in which they must violate the most basic human values to preserve the purity and hegemony of their beliefs. Even within families and communities, we see those who question the prevailing belief system ostracized; we see instances where daughters or sons who violate rigid religious or cultural prescriptions  are attacked by members of their own families.

Blind confidence, interpreted as strength of will, is not relegated to one or another end of the political spectrum or to one or another religious or philosophical point of view or to one or another vocation. It can be found, and is, in fact, celebrated everywhere. It gives people confidence to follow leaders who display such a trait and it makes them feel insecure if their leaders are prone to change their minds. A recent and famous example is President Obama’s failure to enforce the “red line” he had presented as an ultimatum to Bashir Assad if he used chemical weapons in Syria. When the evidence suggested, and Western opinion overwhelmingly favored, the conclusion that Assad had, indeed used chemical weapons on his own people, Obama declined to punish him with military force, as he had strongly implied he would do. Instead, he negotiated with Russia to pressure Syria to give up its chemical weapons, which they did. Obama reasoned that air strikes could not destroy the weapons themselves, as they would produce a catastrophic release of the chemicals. Alternative targets would leave the chemicals intact. Even the evidence that Assad had used the chemicals was sketchy and remains so, as recent findings have suggested that it may have been the rebels themselves who used captured chemical weapons to try to discredit the Syrian regime and bring in American air strikes. But American and even European reaction to Obama’s “dithering” has been uniformly negative. The consensus is that he showed “weakness” by “backing down” from his threat. A leader, it is claimed by many, needs to show, above all, strength of purpose. To many, such strength is shown, not by thoughtful consideration of outcomes, but by plunging ahead at all costs to demonstrate a willingness to carry out promises, even when they seem, in retrospect, to have been ill-advised.

We seem to be in the midst of a public furor to see the world in black and white terms, despite the fact that half of us see it as white and the other as black. We demand leaders who slavishly follow a doctrinaire path of values and of decision-making. Attention to nuances is seen as weakness, both in our leaders and in each other. Thoughtful evaluation of both sides of issues is regarded as either disloyal or muddled thinking, something perhaps appropriate for the “ivory tower” of academia, but not for the real world. The result is a dumbing down of our national discussion of almost anything and the emergence of leaders who compete for leadership of the extremes on positions that should be thoughtfully dissected before decisions are made. Slogans have replaced ideas. Dissenters, or even those who question accepted wisdom, are regarded as traitors to whatever the cause and viciously attacked and not welcomed into the ranks on either side of an issue. The loudest voices with the simplest arguments and who favor the most direct action are carrying the day in our society’s attempt to find its way amidst immensely complex issues of climate, trade, economics, and military conflict. We regard those voices as strong leaders and anything less as too weak to lead.

This is a point of view that can lead to disaster.



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