Category Archives: Ethics & Values

The Impact You Don’t Know You’re Having

My idea of military life prior to joining the Navy was a superior officer gave an order and junior officers and enlisted people obeyed.  While it works this way sometimes, for even the most junior Sailors and Marines, teamwork and collaboration are the norm.  As a chaplain, I can count on one hand the number of times I someone ordered me to do something counter to my recommendations. And I'd have two fingers left over!  One taught me . . .

The Impact You Don’t Know You’re Having

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The Navy and Marine Corps refer to a jail as the brig.  I had been the Brig Chaplain on Okinawa, Japan for about a year when a new commanding officer took over the battalion that ran base facilities.  Although outmoded today, my father, who was a Navy officer in the 1950s, taught me to make a duty call on my commanding officer.  I presented myself at the appointed time and the colonel invited me to sit down for a short chat.

Explaining my major responsibility to him was looking after the staff and prisoners at the brig, I outlined a program to allow personnel to take classes that earned them college credit.  To my surprise, the colonel was dead set against the prisoners participating, even though staving off their boredom would make discipline easier for the guards.  Despite all of my justifications, he would not change his mind.  Resigned to the demise of my program, our meeting ended.

As a sidelight, in the sometimes labyrinthian ways of the military, it turns out the colonel did not have authority over such a program.  Staff and prisoners alike got to take college credit classes, albeit through others’ efforts.

For the next few months, I saw the colonel once a week at his staff meeting.  Never one for idle talk or praise, cordiality marked our relationship.  I always gave him my candid assessment of the matters in my purview but never had to make another recommendation.  When another chaplain took over day-to-day battalion matters, my contact with the colonel ceased.  But my inability to convince him of the obvious benefit of educating incarcerated young men continued to bother me.

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A couple of years later it was time to move on to my next billet.  Customarily, you get what is known as an “end of tour” award, meaning a medal based on your rank and how well you did your job.  The award I received did not surprise me. The presenter did.

At the ceremony, the battalion colonel gave me the most treasured compliment of my Navy career.  In front of all of my colleagues, he commended my work as a chaplain and as a staff officer, unafraid of giving frank recommendations.

Talking about the experience later with my mentor, I learned that the colonel, who was one of the people who had to approve the award, asked to be the presenter.

We Go Through Life Mostly Unaware of How We Affect Other People.

Often we do not realize the influence we have on our family and closest friends.  I would never have guessed about the impact I had on the colonel.  His example of integrity continues to serve me well to this day.  Most importantly, I endeavor to positively touch people’s lives every day while accepting that rarely if ever will I know the fruits of my labor.

When have you had an impact that you did not find out about until long after?

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Why Your Ambition Isn’t Egotistical

July 1 I became a Lieutenant Commander in the United States Navy.  Despite this being my first real promotion (becoming a lieutenant is automatic unless you really mess up) I asked for an understated ceremony.  It seems improper for a chaplain to make a big deal about rank.  After all, my authority should come from my behavior and what I stand for.

Why Your Ambition Isn’t Egotistical

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Do not get me wrong.  I am not opposed to ambition.  My wife will tell you I am driven to succeed.  And I admire ambitious people, provided their pursuit of power and accomplishment benefits humanity.  Remember Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol?  Ebenezer Scrooge’s miserly accumulation of wealth served no purpose other than self-aggrandizement.  Thankfully in America affluence often leads to philanthropy.

Through my work I find that too often the people most fit to fill high positions are the ones reluctant to strive for them.  Genuine modesty impedes them from considering entering the fray.  If you find yourself in this group, I hope you will take these ideas to heart:

  1. Great people seek power so as to serve others.  Although both had towering ambition, leaders as different as George Washington and Winston Churchill devoted their lives to improving the lot of their countrymen and allies.  By contrast, Benedict Arnold and Josef Stalin, while at one time positioned for greatness, squandered their opportunity through egotism and in Stalin’s case inhumanity.
  2. Great people’s lives rest on a foundation of values.  By the time he was 16, Washington had devoted himself to his 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.  Churchill spent years in the political wilderness because his antipathy to fascism and determination to rearm to fight it militarily if necessary was at odds with contemporary public sentiment.  Neither treason nor mass murder was too abhorrent to Arnold and Stalin, respectively, in their pursuit of power.
  3. Great people relentlessly improve their fitness to lead. Washington’s mastery of his Rules of Civility, along with his self-education as a surveyor, soldier, and leader, qualified him for the lofty positions he sought.  Churchill spent time in combat, built wealth, learned to glean knowledge from other people, and developed his oratorical skills all to prepare him to lead.  While Arnold developed some command ability as a soldier, he was not a student of men or leadership. Stalin had great political skill but in the end he substituted brutality for personal development.
  4. Great people at heart are humble. Washington shunned a perpetual presidency for the good of a young America.  Churchill, during the days of his “back fog,” questioned his ability.  Both Arnold and Stalin thought the world owed them recognition and power.
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I hope you will seek ever-greater challenges: professionally, personally, and spiritually.  The world can never have too many people dedicated to serving their fellow human beings.  If you question your fitness for a more prominent position, greater wealth, or increased influence you are on the right track.  The answer lies in honing your ability, clarifying your values, and committing to use these gifts to serve others.

How do you feel about ambition as a character trait?

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The Real Reason You Should Keep Your Promises

Parsha Nugget Mattos – Numbers 30:2-32:42

Too many times I've said I would do something only to regret this commitment and sought a way out.  Could I redefine a word, find a loophole, or convince myself that since the other person didn't think I would follow through it does not matter?  Yet, let someone do such a thing to me and I am righteously indignant.  Would you be surprised that this is not the vow G-d specified in parshas Mattos?

“. . . a man, if he will vow a vow to G-d . . . like all that goes out from his mouth, he will do.” (Numbers/Bamidbar 30:3)

The Real Reason You Should Keep Your Promises

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This week’s parsha discusses how to take a vow. Then it tells about the war against Midian and its aftermath including how to make utensils kosher. Next, the tribes of Rueben, Gad, and half of Manasheh ask to have their portion of land on the eastern side of the Jordan River.

Once I read that when diamond merchants make a deal they finalize it by shaking hands and saying “Mazel and Bracha,” meaning good luck and blessing.  Evidently, this practice is so well established that arbitrators have upheld such deals as binding.  In our society, where many times even a written agreement will not be honored, it is surprising to me that the principle of “his word is his bond” still exists broadly in an industry.

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This is how the Torah views a vow:

Breaking your word injures not just another person, but G-d too.

Because it is so important to fulfill a vow, the Torah discourages taking one.  Even in a courtroom, you should refrain from swearing an oath.  Rather, affirm the words of the person administering the oath. In many cases, it's a sin to take an oath, similar to swearing to do something and not doing it.  Some Jews say b'lee neder before agreeing to do something. This verbalizes the idea they will do their best to follow through but are not making a promise or vow.

Remember your mother telling you to look before you leap?  Not just a physical safety rule, it applies to promises too.  Even without a vow, follow through is obligatory. And while vows can be nullified to avoid sinning against G-d, this does not mollify the other person's bad feelings.

If you are as busy as I am, be reticent when committing to do something. The fewer promises you make the surer you can be that what goes out from your mouth, you will do.

How do you avoid breaking your word?

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Every year beginning on Simchas Torah, the cycle of reading the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, ends and begins again. Each Sabbath a portion known as a sedra or parsha is read. Its name comes from the first significant word or two with which this weekly reading begins.

Do you have a question about the Old Testament? Ask it here and I will answer it in a future Parsha Nugget!

An Indispensable Resource on Military Leadership Lessons

Recently I commented to a friend that I admired his reading business books. Although they have valuable ideas, the writing is less than enthralling. You probably don't have nearly as much time to read as you'd like. But having come across a series of short books containing practical leadership lessons embedded in captivating narratives I knew I had to tell you about them. I mentioned one of them, Patton in my list of the 10 best books I read last year.

I've read five of the 14 biographies in Palgrave Macmillan’s Great Generals series. Written by some of the best military historians, such as Alex Axelrod, Donald A. Davis, H. Paul Jeffers, and Jim Lacey, all were outstanding. Each takes about 7 hours to read or listen to. They cover the subject’s early life, military career, and civilian life after the army if he had one, emphasizing the qualities each general groomed in himself, how he worked with mentors, the significant mistakes he made, and how he overcame them.

Leadership and Personal Development

While its goal is leadership development, the series is equally valuable as a personal development tool.

Rather than proclaiming their subject’s greatness, each general’s eminence becomes self-evident as his story unfolds.

Having read these, I personally recommend:

An Indispensable Resource on Military Leadership Lessons Marshall (Great Generals)

An Indispensable Resource on Military Leadership Lessons Bradley (Great Generals)

An Indispensable Resource on Military Leadership Lessons Pershing (Great Generals)

An Indispensable Resource on Military Leadership Lessons Stonewall Jackson (Great Generals)

An Indispensable Resource on Military Leadership Lessons Patton: A Biography (Great Generals)

I plan to read the other nine, which are:

An Indispensable Resource on Military Leadership Lessons Custer (Great Generals)

An Indispensable Resource on Military Leadership Lessons Washington (Great Generals)

An Indispensable Resource on Military Leadership Lessons Sherman (Great Generals)

An Indispensable Resource on Military Leadership Lessons Andrew Jackson (Great Generals)

An Indispensable Resource on Military Leadership Lessons LeMay (Great Generals)

An Indispensable Resource on Military Leadership Lessons MacArthur (Great Generals)

An Indispensable Resource on Military Leadership Lessons Grant (Great Generals)

An Indispensable Resource on Military Leadership Lessons Robert E. Lee (The Great Generals)

An Indispensable Resource on Military Leadership LessonsEisenhower: A Biography (Great Generals)

My email to Palgrave Macmillan wasn't answered, but it appears the series is ongoing so hopefully it will come to include General Henry “Hap” Arnold, General Winfield Scott, and General Matthew B. Ridgway.

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I'm curious to know if you have read any of these already and if so what you think about them.

What is your biggest challenge to reading more?

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3 Reasons You Should Not Abstain

Have you been following the news about sugar lately? Even the health press has declared it as bad as smoking. Many people I know are swearing it off.

3 Reasons You Should Not Abstain

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Indulge me for a moment. This means no:

  • Ice cream
  • Chocolate
  • Cake
  • Cookies
  • Wine
  • Liquor

Besides toothpaste, have I missed anything?

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These are the obvious foods. Sugar is an ingredient in many others. Aside from the health benefits of wine and chocolate, I find a great deal of emotional satisfaction from having a dish of fantastically creamy ice cream or a nicely chilled martini.

Abstain or Indulge?

Undoubtedly it's the case that many people eat too much sugar. However, unless you have a serious health condition that warrants it, you shouldn't abstain. Consider its adverse effects:

  1. Indulgence and abstention are the same. They both indicate a person has insufficient self-control. If you abstain from cookies because when you eat one you eat the whole bag you're avoiding the trigger not demonstrating willpower. Self-control means you decide how many cookies you'll eat despite your urge to do otherwise.
  2. Abstention is rarely a long-term solution. Alcoholics can attest to the difficulty of renouncing liquor. According to the Harvard Mental Health Letter 50% relapse into drinking. Most often abstention works only after a serious accident or the onset of health problems.
  3. Abstention creates stress. When you abstain as the cure for overindulgence you are constantly under the pressure of suppressing your desire. Backsliding often leads to self-condemnation. In the end, you have traded the stress caused by a negative behavior with a different stress source.

The better response is to:

Use your aspiration to a healthier life as the catalyst for greater self-discipline.

Running 45 to 50 minutes burns the 600 calories contained in half of a pint container of Haagen Dazs. Use the ice cream as a reward for stepping up your exercise program.

Instead of buying a regular bag of Oreo cookies, get the 100-calorie packs. Commit to eating just one package per day.

Make a ritual of drinking a glass of wine, perhaps with your spouse or a friend with whom you can be mutually accountable.

With all of the delights in this life, why restrict yourself? As I wrote several months ago, moderation is the key. While lack of restraint is destructive, abstinence is not the answer.

In which situations do you think abstention is the only choice?

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