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Professional humility and integrity


I had a rare privilege recently to attend an off the record briefing from a very high ranking general officer from an allied nation. He was reflecting on a career that spanned some very extraordinary times.

He told one story however that really captured my attention. He was describing a situation in which he saw the president of a country negotiating with regional warlords in what can only be described as a loose confederation of enemies united by a common hatred for a certain outlaw group.

The president of the country gave an unenforceable order for his warlords to share some of their under the table money which implied he knew of their illegal protection racket.

The general described his own reaction as one of dismay, and expected that this strategy would turn out to be a disaster as it reflected poorly on the state of graft and corruption in this regime.
To his great surprise however the warlords responded favorably in an almost business as usual fashion and the president was able to forge a tentative but surprisingly resilient coalition of the semi-willing. The general’s lesson learned was that there were a lot of things in life that he just didn’t understand apparently and he learned to adjust his expectations and behaviors accordingly.

He was also surprised by the different perceptions caused by culture.  What he interpreted as shocking corruption was simply “how things are done around here”” for the warlords.  His cultural lenses caused him to mis-interpret and mis-forecast the outcome of the president’s  strategy.

I thought this was a remarkable acknowledgment of the limits of human understanding for a senior officer to make in an open forum. It reminded me of just how much uncertainty there really is in most dimensions of human life and how we must account for uncertainty in all of our planning and decision-making processes.

Not the least important lesson learned for me was the need for humility in our own confidence in describing and understanding the world around us. It is good to remember that the world just might be more complicated than we think it is and that we may not know everything no matter how successful we might have been already.

My respect and appreciation for this general officer’s talents, self-awareness and integrity went up several notches, an I vowed to remember this lesson.

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