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Grow your leadership by holding opposites


Hard to do, but vitally important as a leader is to hold opposites, and to mentor others to do the same.

In this I remember today, as I do every day. Captain James Alexander Ross, Jr., U.S. Army, Retired, Deceased.

I called him Grandpa. He was the most important influence on my life. He got away from us, as we Irish say, forty years ago.

Grandpa was career Army -- Corps of Engineers. His most significant duty was described in one line on his resume: “overseas service in England, France, and Germany.” Most of us call that WW II. His job was to rebuild things while people were shooting at him. From the listing of the units he served in, Army records reveal he was at the Battle of the Bulge and the liberation of Buchenwald.

For me, his most important service was on a summer day like today. I was home from college. He was changing the glass panels on his porch for the summer screens. I went over to help. We pulled the screens up from the cellar storage. He gave me a brush and hose to clean them.

Grandpa was meticulous and disciplined. My mother remembered white-gloved inspections of his children’s rooms. Of course I knew this and carefully cleaned each screen and set it aside in the sun to dry.

Periodically, Grandpa would take a screen off the finished pile and put it back in the to-do pile. This was typical. He had an exceptionally high-quality standard; and, even good help, struggled to meet it.

At one point, I realized he was quietly cycling screens back as quickly as I was completing them. I suspected then he was testing me. Hey, it was a weekend; I was home from college: it was sunny and warm; I was helping my grandpa; I had no place to go; I just kept cleaning and recleaning.

Finally, he stopped, looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and said, “You know. You really ought to tell me to go to hell.”

That was a surprise.

From him, I’d learned the rules and disciplines of an officer and a gentleman. Never wear a wristwatch to a social occasion. Carry two handkerchiefs so you have a clean one to share with someone weeping. Always carry a knife. You should never need more than one bullet. Don’t argue with someone of lower character or rank, it will only demean you.

My grandpa, mentor, friend: the person who embodied rule, order discipline, keeping commitments, delaying gratification; who trained me to honor and serve those values, now wanted this newly minted adult to see what a fool unchallenged obedience to authority could make me. He wanted me to be awake to, and call out, what’s really going on – even if it meant challenging him.

He was teaching me to hold opposites: the marker of psychological and, ultimately, spiritual maturity.

In war and in peace, we benefit from good habits: the disciplines we’ve installed to keep us doing the things that need to be done. And in the fog of war, or in the dynamic of disruptive change, we need to be flexible, nimble, aware, and trusting of our instincts.

What’s more, we’ve learned we hold those opposites by holding open two separate cognitive processes: our Associative process, which manages context and experience; and our Sequential process, which manages, rule and authority. Learning this, and teaching it to others, offers a path to self- and other-understanding, to more impactful communication, to conflict resolutions.

In honor of Grandpa and this proximity to Memorial Day, the legacy Captain Ross left to his children and grandchildren is best recognized by John Adams’s reflection after the Revolutionary War.

I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine. ¹

¹ Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, post 12 May 1780 [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society. http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/


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