Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Extreme Ownership (A Book Review)

The book cover for Extreme Ownership, fair use claimed, full citation below in the sources.

Greetings All:

It has been a while since I featured a book in my blog.  I have listened to a couple of books recently that were truly thought-provoking for me.  

The first was Dr. Brene Brown's Rising Strong.  Dr. Brown has performed ground-breaking work on the relationship between embracing (an appropriate level of) vulnerability and becoming a stronger, more effective person.  Dr. Brown has a TED Talk that is great.  The link is in the sources below and I invite you to check it out, you'll dig it.

As to your featured book, it is Extreme Ownership.  The authors are John "Jocko" Willink and Leif Babin.  They are the two primary directors/leaders/visionaries of the leadership consulting firm Echelon Front.  Prior to this endeavor, these gentlemen were Navy SEAL officers.  The Navy SEALS are the gleaming tip of American's military spear.  It is only the most dedicated and both mentally and physically tough who earn the right to wear the Trident, signifying admission into this most elite unit.  I highly doubt I would make it thru two days of this training.  

The authors were assigned to "Task Unit Bruiser" during the Battle of Ramadi.  This was a period of sustained (that's code for bloody) urban combat during Operation Iraq Freedom.  If you've read and/or seen American Sniper by Chris Kyle, much of his story occurred in this hellhole.

If you're looking for a book with tales of combat, this book fits the bill.  However, I would suggest the real value of this book lies in the lessons learned in combat and the application thereof to contemporary business endeavors.  

I loved this book.  I loved it for its raw honesty.  I loved it for his simple message:  You are responsible for everything if you are a leader.  The core message of Extreme Ownership is that if you are in charge, "The Boss" if you will, then you are the one for whom all accountability rests.  Don't blame your staff, your assistant, the Wi-Fi going down, the Fed Ex truck that derailed on I-80 west of Iowa City for the package not getting someplace on time.  Nope.  You, you as the leader, are in charge.  And with that authority comes the responsibility for taking the hit when things go south.

I first learned of this book when I listened to Tim Ferriss' podcast.  It was also, not by coincidence, I would argue, that I also learned of Dr. Brown's book.  I have a link to the poscast with Commander Willink that podcast and it is an amazing listen.

If I had to pick one thing about this book I love (and there are many) is the way these two warriors, leaders, patriots, share credit with their fellow service members.  The "Special Operations" community, fair or otherwise, has been painted as being elite, being better than the rest of the military.  Just my two cents, yet I have yet to meet one such military member who acted even slightly like that.  If anything, they are confident, humble, engaging, curious, respectful and someone whose company I'd love to share.  Oh, and if you're ISIS, these guys would put a bullet in your skull.   

Willink and Babin go out of their way to praise their fellow warriors when discussing their service in the hell that was Ramadi.   This praise in neither faint nor artificial.  There is nothing about these authors that is either.  Instead, they are two of the most authentic, genuine individuals whose story I have had the good fortune to learn.  It is due to their sincerity that makes me appreciate their willingness to share praise and credit.

This is a central tenant of this book:  Leaders must build up the team, protect the team and never forget that they are both a part of, as well as, the leader of the team.  No one, especially the leader, is as important as the sum of the parts.

If you listen to this book or read it (or both) I believe you will come away with a few central points.  The first is that as a leader you, and only you, are responsible for what occurs in your endeavors.  You must own your decisions-good, bad, or otherwise.  If a subordinate and/or direct report commits and error, ultimately, it is on you, not him.  You failed in some capacity as a leader to properly train/coach/mentor/direct/encourage.  Then there is the incredibly hard part of leadership- letting someone go who is not contributing to and/or detracting from the mission.  At the end the the day, it is the mission that must be accomplished.

The second thing that stuck with me was the critical importance of communication.  Whether one is directing troops on the battlefield or overseeing salespeople in a territory, it is incumbent on the leader to explain not only the "how" but also the "why" of a mission.  In this book, Willink explains in vivid detail how he got his subordinates to embrace working with Iraqi troops, even though the initial response was severe in the negative.  Good leaders explain the mission.  Great leaders explain the reasons behind the mission.  It is only by taking this extra step that a leader can arouse the passion in his or her subordinates to not only follow but become leaders in their own right in accomplishing the mission.

I could go on and on about this book, the stories, the applications to real life.  Yet to do so would only drag out this post and would rob you of the experience of hearing or reading the stories for yourself.  I will touch on a third point of the book that riveted me.  It is this:  

Discipline equals freedom.

"Huh?"  You might say.  I thought the whole idea of freedom was to be able to be yourself, to make your own way, to sleep in late, not make your bed, let the dishes pile up in the sink and, well, you get the point.  

Yet in Willink and Babin's mind, it is only through discipline that you have the freedom to become what you truly wish to be.  If you want more time in the day, for example, then get up earlier.  If you want to be able to move faster in your body armor and helmet, then wear the (expletive-deleted) things all the time, not just when you have to.  Then, it becomes almost like a second skin.  Want to be more effective in some area of your life?  Great.  All you have to do is commit to owning your conduct and disciplining yourself to do the little things everyday that set you up for success.  

It reminds me of the line from legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi's What It Takes To Be Number 1,  "Winning is a habit.  Unfortunately, so is losing."  Willink discusses how you need to set three alarms so there is NO EXCUSE for not getting up on time.  Then he takes it a step further by saying you need, no, strike that, MUST get up immediately when the FIRST alarm goes off.  If you do, you win.  If you go back to sleep, then you lost that day's first battle.  As Coach Lombardi warns, this is the beginning o the day's habits,...for good or for ill.

I enjoyed this book completely and I believe you will as well.  The standards Willink and Babin set are high, incredibly so.  Yet not impossible.  While they had the awesome responsibility for leading fellow SEALS into battle, we, too, have our own responsibility.  That is to be the best leaders we can be, at work, at home, in the classroom, in the gym, wherever we find ourselves.  Few people are willing to accept this level of responsibility.  Then again, there are equally few who ascend to a level of effective leadership that empower them to achieve  their goals.  

Extreme Ownership is a collection of lessons learned literally under fire.  The applications to civilian life and business are clearly explained.  I highly recommend this book to anyone who desires to be a better leader and inspire leadership in others.  I have links in the sources to the book and other information.  If you do read or listen to this book, please let me know your thoughts on it, thanks.

Be well my friends,


Saturday, November 21, 2015

Terminal Flowers

The "terminal" wild flowers on my hill from late yesterday afternoon.  Photo by J. Berta. 

Greetings All:

"Everything has its season
Everything has its time
Show me a reason and I'll soon show you a rhyme
Cats fit on the windowsill
Children fit in the snow..."

The above lyrics are from the song, "Corner of the Sky" from the musical, Pippin.  As I write this, snow is still falling, albeit gently.  While the calendar reports there is a month left of fall, "Iowa winter" has arrived.  (It's my unofficial way of tracking the start of winter, even though we'll likely still have some nice days before the winter solstice.)

We got the news earlier this week that the snow was coming.  I performed the annual obligatory ritual of preparing the snowblower, or "snow thrower" as it is now called, for the expected onslaught of overnight snow.  To-wit, please see Exhibit A:

My snowblower, ready for the winter "fun."  Photo by J. Berta

As of this...typing, I doubt there is enough snow to justify even firing this thing up today.  I probably will, just the same.  After all, how can you turn down the opportunity to fire up something with a motor.

One bit of fall is still with us and that is football, college football to be precise.  My beloved Iowa Hawkeyes are facing off against the Boilermakers of Purdue.  It's going to be a game played in the snow.  Something tells me there it will be a LOT of fun for those on the field...and those in the stands.  Every game day my neighbors and I put out our Iowa flag.  I've never seen it against this weather background:

Add caption

 Regardless of the amount of snow, it's clearly snow and it means that what is left of the wild flowers are gone.  The opening photo was taken last evening as the sun was setting.  I was furiously finishing the lawn, the last of the leaves, if you will.  I snapped this photo knowing that these flowers would likely not see another sunrise.

Sad?  I suppose.  Yet such is life, the passing of the seasons.  Flowers die, as do all living things.  Their death does not diminish their beauty.  Perhaps it is their terminal nature that makes their beauty all that more special.

We here in the Midwest face winter every year with a resigned determination.  It is a period of inconvenience, of getting up earlier to clean off cars, to search for that (expletive-deleted) missing glove, to clinch our teeth and squint our gaze in the face of frozen gusts.  Yet we know this will pass.

Then there are those among us for whom winter is a time of joy.  Kids, particularly.  I first heard the song I quoted over thirty years ago.  I think it says with me because of this line:  

 "...children fit in the snow..." 

My daughter in the snow.  Photo by J. Berta

That is a completely accurate statement!

So mourn not the terminal flowers.  They had their time, their moment (literally) in the sun.  They shall return, with the spring sun and soft rain.  We will greet them like the old, dear friends they are.

In the meantime, let's embrace winter however we choose, with whatever level of stoic reflection available to us.  So long as we're sincere, it's OK to not be grinning from ear to ear under our scarfs.

I found this quote from Henry Rollins that I think is just super.  Here it is:

"I have come to regard November as the older, harder man's October. I appreciate the early darkness and cooler temperatures. It puts my mind in a different place than October. It is a month for a quieter, slightly more subdued celebration of summer's death as winter tightens its grip."

Yes, Henry, summer has passed on.  Yet it shall return.  In the meantime, I'll go fill the bird feeders, maybe even sled down the hill.  Oh, and yes, there is the snow on sidewalk to be dealt with.  

Everything does have its season, and its time.

The time for wild flowers is past. 
The time for snow is here.
So long as I am near those I love,
Let the season be whatever it needs to be.

Be well my friends,


Sunday, November 15, 2015

Pleurs Pour Paris

A person pays respects by lighting a candle outside of Petit Cambodge restaurant on Nov. 14, 2015.  Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images, fair use claimed for this non-commercial use.

Bonjour à toutes et à tous

That's French for my usual blog intro, "Greeings All."  It has been a few days since we were all rocked with the horrific news out of Paris that a band of murderous cowards took the lives of 129 innocent people.  There are hundreds more gravely wounded, some, I fear, fatally.  I am certain this death toll with rise.

I had to be in Chicago early Saturday morning, so I spent several hours in my car Friday night.  I listened to the stories of this horror, I thought about what we went thru fourteen years ago.  

It's now come to light that ISIS, The terrorist group, has claimed responsibility for this horrific act.  The facts, initial as they are, seem to give credence to their claim.  

I want to give ISIS the bare minimum of attention on this post.  They are cowards and child rapists and sadists.  It is enough to say they need to be stopped.  And yes, "stopped" is a euphemism for a permanent stopping.
  Roger Cohen of The New York Times summed up the situation succinctly this way:  "The only adequate measure, after the killing of at least 129 people in Paris, is military, and the only objective commensurate with the ongoing threat is the crushing of ISIS and the elimination of its stronghold in Syria and Iraq."  I have cited to his column below and encourage everyone to read it.

However, if you can only read one thing about ISIS, read The Atlantic's piece, "What ISIS Really Wants."  Here's just one bit about the demons were dealing with.  One of ISIS' "cheerleaders" (his name is in the article, he does not warrant the typing of the letters) had this to say about the tactics of ISIS that would cause the Waffen SS to blush:

"...the state (ISIS) has an obligation to terrorize its enemies—a holy order to scare the shit out of them with beheadings and crucifixions and enslavement of women and children, because doing so hastens victory and avoids prolonged conflict."

Yup, that's who we're dealing with here.

I'll decline to get into my preference on how to deal with ISIS.  Yet for those of you who know me, you can probably guess how I would suggest we deal with ISIS.  I'll give you a hint:  The French bombing campaign of today is a good start,...a start.

Well, enough about ISIS, and enough about rage at them.  Let's return to Paris, to the loss and the heartache.  The title to this blog, translated to English, "Weeping for Paris."  There will be time to respond to ISIS, our response.  Yet for now, at this time, let us all (Caveat, those who are serving on the JSC, the NSC, the CIA, or Congress and/or staffer, please feel free to engage in your planning efforts for...dealing with ISIS) spend our time sincerely, genuinely grieving for Paris, for those Parisians, (even those just holding this status temporarily) and their families.

And with this call for sincere grief, I'll start with me.  There is a part of me that wants to be a sincere practitioner of guilt, of sadness for this loss.  Then there is the part of me that is spoiling for a fight.  Of course, I'll never be the one squeezing a trigger.  

I have been working on this post for the better part of a few hours.  I have been endeavoring to come up with an ending that would tie this all together.  Something poignant, moving even.  

And I have nothing.  

Why is that?

I wonder if it is because I simply am not capable of reaching that level of sincere grief for those who fell in Paris? I wonder if it is because I cannot get past the barbaric and cowardly acts of the perpetrators of these acts?  I suppose at the end of the day, anger is easier to summon than grief.

Perhaps someday, I'll be able to do both.  But for now, I offer you something I did find sincere and moving.  It is from last night's Saturday Night Live.  This sums up what I was searching for on this keyboard...and in my heart.

Être bien mes amis.


(Opening photo)

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A Veterans' Day Poem

The flag flown at our home on Veterans' Day, 2015.  Photo by J. Berta

Greetings All:

Today is Veterans' Day.  I thought I would share a poem about a particular group of Veterans for whom I have particular respect.  Those of the Vietnam War.  

He Doesn't Care by Jeno Berta

When he returned, there were no cheering crowds.
No bands played, no flags waved,
No children holding hand-made signs.
He didn’t care.
He just wanted a beer.

He had been warned.
Warned by others of stranger rage,
Of icy stares, of silent scorn.

He told himself he didn’t care.
That being home was enough.
In one piece.
And away …
Away from that horrid place…
That place of death.
That place that stole a year of his life.

But now, now, he was home.

He missed Christmas, but he didn’t care.
It was cold, a cold he had forgotten.
A year in the jungle has that effect.
He embraced the cold and snow and ice and frost.
So long as his Zippo shot forth flame, he was fine.

The Zippo.  It was just one of many things that was with him that year.
One of his tools.
This one for fire.
Others for war.
All of them, always, close by.

On his parent’s porch,
He held court with the cold,
And his beer,
And his Marlboros,
And, of course,
The Memories.

He thought they would fade.
No way.
No matter, he’d tell himself,
“I don’t care.”

Time passed.
The hair and weight returned. 
He took a bride one day.
Another, he took papers from a Sheriff.
A church was traded for a courtroom.
Marriage over, yet life went on.

And so did the memories.

At night in a darkened bar, he’d huddle with those who knew.
They all said they didn’t care.
They would nod, confirming each other’s lies.

Forty years on the factory floor.
Hard work.
He didn’t care.
Until it was over.

Now there was more time.
More time in the yard.
More time in the garage.
And yes, more time with the memories.
Still not faded,
Still there,
Especially at night,
In the dark,
In his dreams.
He didn’t care.
At least that’s what he told himself.

The Zippo?  In some drawer, or maybe a box. 
He didn’t know.
He didn’t care.
His last cigarette was years ago.
About the time he met her.

“Her” is wife #2. 
This time, it worked out.
Of this, he does care.

She, like him, had taken vows before.
From that union came two children.
From those two children came a grandchild.
She calls him “Papa.”

She’s not his blood.
He does not care.
Of her love, he cares so.

One day she comes to him.
“Papa, please come to my school.”
Her eyes are big, her smile wide.

He asks her, “Why?”
Yet of the answer, he knows.
Still the answer must come from her.

She tells.
He agrees.
They go.

The day comes.

On a metal chair, he sits.
Then stands.
For the flag.

Children sing,
A speech is made.
All applaud.

Applaud the honored guests,
Of which, he is one.

It’s Veterans’ Day.
Papa’s Day.
His day.
Finally, it’s his day.

At home later, with his wife,
He tells the tale,
Of the day,
Of his thoughts,
Of his burdens,
Of the war,
Of his sins,
Of his rage,
Of his loves,
Of it all.

He holds her,
And he cries.

He doesn’t care.

He’s finally free,
Free to truly not care.

Dedicated to the brave men and women who served in the Vietnam War.  Welcome home.

Be well my friends,

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Some Honest Work

My "office" a few Monday afternoons ago.  Photo by J. Berta

Greetings All:

Three Mondays ago was a sad day.  I attended a funeral for a friend who passed away far too soon.  I should note from the offset that I have permission from her beloved companion to post these details.  Thank you Mike for allowing me to share this on my blog. 

The friend in question, Barbie Dietsch, passed on far too soon at 50.  Despite an illness that attacked her on multiple fronts, she fought it all 12 rounds.  Her passing was tragic, unfair and heartbreaking.  

Notwithstanding the amazing display of compassion and professionalism shown by the funeral home, it was still a sad, sad endeavor.  The Priest who proceeded over the funeral offered in a most sincere way his unshakable belief in the hereafter.  I have nothing but my own faith to offer in support of his position.  (And for the record, I am convinced Barbie and my Mom have been catching up on matters.)

There is an old Irish saying:  "Don't bring death home."  What that means is, at least to me, is that after the funeral is concluded, you huddle with those you know and love before heading to your home.  This traditionally is a luncheon.  Sometimes, this is at the church basement.  In this case, it was at my Dad's bar.

If you're a regular reader of this blog (and thank you if you are) you may recall that my Dad owns a neighborhood bar.  Barbie was my Dad's head bartender and we were honored that the family elected to have the post-funeral lunch at his bar.

When I arrived, the place was full, with more folks on the way.  My plan was to stop by, fix a plate, and head back to the office.  Within about a nanosecond of looking around, I realized my plans were about to change.

I saw my Dad behind the bar, doing what he does everyday, taking orders, serving drinks.  Yet this was critical mass.  There were simply too many people for him to handle by himself.

And with that, I began an afternoon of "honest work" a bar tender.

I am leery to write about this as I do not want to give the impression that I came riding in on a white horse to save the day.  Then again, the sheer fact that I write a blog is, in and of itself, an exercise in vanity.  Add into the mix the fact I'm a lawyer and an only child and just about anything I write about that deals with me could be viewed (likely accurately) as a, "look-at-how-great-I am" post.

I assure you, that is not the case, especially with this post.  It is one of the leading reasons why I have not published a post in three weeks.  I have been working on this one and I want to get this one right.  I recently came to the conclusion that I doubt I can ever truly get this "right," or to the level I'd like.  All I can hope for is to write something I can say is sincere and then publish it.  So here goes, back to the story.

I ended up getting behind the bar and immediately started taking orders.  My Dad's place is your typical neighborhood bar, a "beer and a shot" type place.  We do not have an...elaborate wine list.  Another thing about my Dad's place is that all the glasses are plastic.  My Dad started this years ago when he put in the volleyball court.  While this may not be the environmentally friendly thing to do, it made my life easier as I did not have glasses to wash.

I had not tended bar for a while.  I realized immediately that I was rusty.  From pouring drinks, running the cash register, making change, it took me more than a moment to get it all right.  The patrons were understanding and even took gentle humor in me attempting to do this job.

The thing about tending bar is that you perform a series of tasks.  Especially in a place like my Dad's, the tasks are not extensive.  Performing these tasks when things are slow is no big deal.  Yet for me, it was a huge challenge when there were more people to wait on and trying to get past my mental block of adding up $2.75 multiple times.

Then I found myself getting into a groove.  I could serve faster, add faster, make change faster and even had time to re-stock a couple of the coolers.  It felt good to know I was doing a good job and also helping out my Dad.

Speaking of, he's a fiercely independent man.  He's not one to ask for help and it took this situation for him to realize that he could not handle it all himself.  I recently finished listening to Brene Brown's book, Rising Strong.  She's PhD who is a GREAT writer and is incredibly down to earth, honest, and writes with an authenticity that causes you to want to listen to more.  She discusses, among other things, the need every human has to rely on others.  She stresses that asking for help, for assistance, is often incorrectly viewed on our society as a sign of weakness.  Dr. Brown argues that asking for help when one needs it is a sign of maturity, of strength.

Sometimes one can ask for help without saying a word.  Sometimes one can simply accept help from another.  My Dad did that when he didn't protest when I headed behind the bar.  I sure accepted a LOT of his help in reminding me, re-training me and re-setting the cash register.  

My Dad (and boss from that Monday afternoon) and I.  Photo by J. Berta

Bar tending is not a leisurely activity, if one does it right.  You don't just "serve drinks."  You serve your customers by providing them beverages, served correctly, quickly and courteously.  At the "black belt" level of bar tending, there are those who make masterful, complex cocktails in a graceful, almost effortless way.  (I will never be one of those.)  I suppose for any bar tender who plays his or her craft, the pursuit can be summed up in two words:  Honest work.

Towards the end of my "shift," a toast was made to Barbie.  Through tears and laughs, she was remembered.  She was beloved by many and will be terribly missed.  As I poured drinks and cracked open cans of Pepsi and Bud Light, I thought of her. I thought of the many times she had done what I was doing and how good she was at it.  Now here were her family and friends, honoring her, missing her, mourning her in their own ways.

As I look back on that afternoon, I still feel the heavy sadness of Barbie's passing.  I was glad I could be there for both her funeral and her luncheon.  I like to think that in some small, yet sincere way, I was honoring my friend and the honest work she engaged in at my Dad's by doing a bit of the same honest work that afternoon.

This blog post is dedicated to Barbara "Barbie" Dietsch, mother, grandmother, sibling, beloved companion, friend to far too many to count and one of the best bartenders I ever had the privilege to know.  R.I.P. my friend.

The photo of my friend Barbie posted in a place of honor at my Dad's bar, posted with permission of her beloved companion and best friend, Mike.  Photo credit to the Dietsch family.
Be well my friends,