A City, If You Can Keep It: On leadership

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A Winters Express op-ed column

Career politicians: a state of being that should never be. When you have nothing else to offer the world but political service, you eventually only serve yourself. You make decisions to perpetuate your position, or the one to which you aspire. These people are the worst kind of leaders.

I remember back to my first unit assignment in the Army. I recall a statement that has stuck with me, “When in charge, be in charge.” In the absence of leadership, take charge. This above all the other phrases on leadership has stuck out, more so than other familiar sayings like “Lead from the front,” “Lead by doing” and Lead by example.” None stuck with me quite so much.

I recall being on a NATO training mobilization to Ukraine as a green Lieutenant 10 years ago. I was excited. I traded my blue passport for a red one, flew on a crappy commercial airplane from Munich to L’viv Ukraine, and hopped on a charter bus that I later realized was driven by the local mob to the Ukrainian military post on which the NATO exercises would take place.

Before the exercise kicked off, someone said to us “If something goes wrong, step in. The American Flag on your shoulder carries weight and will amplify your orders to intervene.” He was right.

Our flag — regardless of what some people in town, in California, or across the nation think of it — stands for everything that is right and aspirational in the world to people with less liberty than us. It is a symbol of freedom, justice, leadership, authority, a symbol for good — a symbol that inspires. To echo John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama, to the world, we are the shining city on a hill.

De Oppresso Liber. There is a reason the Special Forces motto is “To liberate the oppressed.”

It is not mere propaganda or hyperbole, our flag on the shoulders of our women and men in uniform has a palpably positive effect on the world especially in times of crisis and uncertainty. I’ve seen it, I’ve heard stories from others who have seen it. There are people in this town who can tell you similar experiences.

The hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan and the atrocities that resulted in the process is a salient example of what happens when leaders fail. When we forget what we, as Americans, represent to the world, when we lose the courage of our convictions and take the wrong easy road instead of the difficult right path.

A leader doesn’t take action for her own benefit, he doesn’t make decisions with his best interest at the forefront of the mind. This past year and a half has been a running example of poor leadership. A lack of moxie to stand up to questionably constitutional “orders,” masquerading as law, that the executive branch uses to eviscerate the rights of many. Failing to finely target pandemic response to protect the most vulnerable, and instead taking a broad stroke, hurting the majority who would otherwise endure.

Other examples abound. Denigration of the public by elected officials in meetings. Attempting to force compliance on some because it is politically expedient and demanded by others who have already exercised free choice for themselves. Counties like Yolo enacting livelihood-destroying restrictions saying “it is the state’s fault, nothing I can do” and then county officials who decline to even advocate upwards on behalf of those people they’re hurting.

Presidents and governors exercising power beyond the constitutional scope of their office under the guise of an “emergency” that has been occurring for 18 months. Ends and means, means and ends.

The culmination of this year full of shortcomings, though, is the failings that went into the withdrawal from Kabul. Failing to plan for a known problem, failing to follow established doctrine. Operational decisions made for political gain, abandoning thousands of Americans stranded in terrorist-controlled territory, likely to be raped, tortured, and killed for propaganda. All of it has been an example of how not to lead.

I have struggled often watching these “leaders,” who should be the shining example, forget what they should represent. Watching them decide that the ends justify the means with callous disregard for the misery left in the wake of their decisions, and the abandonment of their only true purpose: that what makes the United States unique even among western democracies — protection of individual liberty.

But there have been rays of hope. Special forces veterans lived up to their motto even in retirement when our “leaders” refused to act and freed tens of thousands of people from a re-emergent murderous theocratic dictatorship in Afghanistan.

Recently, USMC LtCol Stuart Scheller publicly demanded accountability from military senior leadership for the failures of the Afghanistan withdrawal, risking his career and pension. The “leaders” above him relieved him of command, brushed off his concerns, and attempted to sweep it all under the rug. He resigned his commission in protest two days later, forgoing his pension three years from retirement. They sent him to mental health for evaluation. Other field grade officers within spitting distance of retirement have since tendered their resignations along with him as well.

A leader does what is right even if it will not result in the desired outcome, or will be to their personal detriment. I have been pensive as of late about what that means in today’s world.

Lately, I have had about one person per week from all political persuasions asking me if I plan to run for City Council again next year. No one has gotten a definitive answer because life is so volatile these days that it can be hard to predict where each of us will be in six months to a year. But after the jumble of thoughts and emotions, reflecting on everything I mentioned above, and more, I can say yes, I think I will.

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