Of course it’s not simple! “Nation building,” that is. Especially in Iraq. On the other hand, I urge you to read, “How One Soldier Brought Democracy to Iraq: The Mayor of Ar Rutbah,” by the “mayor” himself, Major James Gavrilis/U.S. Army Special Forces (Foreign Policy, November-December 2005). The often brushed-over fact is that around the world the Army is becoming more and more decentralized, depending on “entrepreneurs”-in-uniform to perform the complex tasks of stabilization and nation building. Some are successful at these remarkably complex tasks, and many aren’t. Gavrilis is an exemplar of those who “get it.” The task is insanely (right word) complex, but on the other hand built upon remarkably simple and universal pillars—that work in the coal mine, finance department and in the middle of the desert. Consider these two compelling quotes from MAJ Gavrilis:

“We behaved as if we were guests in their house. We treated them not as a defeated people, but as allies. Our success became their success.”

“We were friendly and respectful whenever we met a Bedouin or farmer, often sharing tea with them in the middle of the open desert. Our behavior sent the clearest message: We cared more about the people of Ar Rutbah than did the Fedayeen. … After all, we had done everything possible to limit damage to civilian infrastructure and private property. … We treated enemy wounded and distributed contraband food. I stopped our final assault to institute a day-long cease-fire as a gesture to the people of
the city.”

I don’t mean that MAJ Gavrilis wasn’t tough when required (often!), but that the guiding principle was to avoid acting like an occupying victor and acting instead a respectful supporter. After all, the entire idea of this venture (chimerical quest for WMD notwithstanding) is to build a symbolic Fortress of Democracy in the heart of the Middle East.

Democracy’s underpinning ultimately is respect for the rights and collective wisdom of the governed.

To put it mildly, the major’s remarks (“secrets”) dovetail perfectly with quotes that I’ve long used in my mostly private-sector leadership seminars:

“What creates trust, in the end, is the leader’s manifest respect for the followers.”—Jim O’Toole, leadership guru, Leading Change

“It was much later that I realized Dad’s secret. He gained respect by giving it. He talked and listened to the fourth-grade kids in Spring Valley who shined shoes the same way he talked and listened to a bishop or a college president. He was seriously interested in who you were and what you had to say.”—Professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, Harvard, Respect

There’s no such thing, for example, as a wildly successful six-sigma program (or a nation-building effort) without respect for the autonomy and goodwill of the “governed.”

Consider another pillar of my take on implementation of successful change programs and MAJ Gavrilis’s mid-desert approach. Here’s a common exchange between me and a participant at one of my events:

Participant: “How long does it take to bring about significant change?”

TP: “Whatever you say it does.”

That is, more or less (mostly more) change takes as long as you expect it to. Expect it to be a 3-year process and so it will be. (In fact such lengthy processes seldom materialize; the “targets” are worn out long before execution has progressed very far.) On the other hand, if you believe that the attitudinal shift, even a fundamental attitudinal shift, can occur in a couple of weeks, so it will ordinarily will be. (ASSUMING YOU GET AN A+ IN “WALK THE TALK.” Gandhi: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”) And so it was in Ar Rutbah. Believe it or not, MAJ Gavrilis and his cohorts and Iraqi “partners” had made giant (right word) practical strides toward local autonomy and stabilization in a … week!

Not to drag this out too long, the Foreign Policy article coincided with a brief but compelling piece on the under-appreciated, under-funded Coast Guard’s remarkable effectiveness post-Katrina:

“HOW THE COAST GUARD GETS IT RIGHT”—Headline, Time, 10.31.2005

The USCG’s “secrets”:


And the bedrock upon which these two all-important principles rest: “Perhaps the most important distinction of the Coast Guard is that it trusts itself.” Or, rather, the degree to which the USCG trusts its local commanders to do the right thing without ceaseless checking and “co-ordination” with the always clumsy chain of command.

Which, in turn, calls forth another of the pillars of my belief system as expressed in my seminars. It was best and most succinctly explicated by Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman in their masterwork Organizing Genius:

“Groups become great only when everyone in them, leaders and members alike, is free to do his or her absolute best.”

“The best thing a leader can do for a Great Group is to allow its members to discover their greatness.”


I could go on … and on. Instead I’ll close by emphasizing the obvious: When an organization works—very small or very large, private sector or public sector or independent sector—it invariably does so by assiduously attending to the Universal Principles demonstrated above.

It’s that simple.
It’s that hard.

(Part of this analysis is captured in the attached PowerPoint Special Presentation.)

Tom Peters posted this on November 10, 2005, in Strategies.
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