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Character and Backbone

We had our man on the moon moment, and we blew it. Backbone without character is a disaster. You have to have both to lead effectively.

back·​bone | \ ˈbak-ˈbōn , -ˌbōn \


1: SPINAL COLUMN, SPINE

2: something that resembles a backbone: such as

a: a chief mountain ridge, range, or system

b: the foundation or most substantial or sturdiest part of something

c: the longest chain of atoms or groups of atoms in a usually long molecule (such as a polymer or protein)

d: the primary high-speed hardware and transmission lines of a telecommunications network (such as the Internet)

3: firm and resolute character

Synonyms: firmness, decision, fortitude

As of this writing, the total number of COVID-19 deaths stands at 2.4 million worldwide and almost 500,000 in the U.S. alone. If there were ever a moment in history where the interests of all peoples and nations were aligned, it is this one. The pandemic contained within it the seeds of a man on the moon moment – a bold, collective undertaking that summons the will of an entire nation to do something extraordinary. But we blew it. Despite the astonishing efforts of companies like Pfizer, Moderna, and Regeneron in developing effective vaccines and treatments in record-shattering time, the preparation for the pandemic, the response to it, and the efforts to roll out the vaccine to a desperate population have been marred by failures of imagination and leadership at almost every level. With certain exceptions, most notably in the medical community and private sector, there has been an almost total absence of the bold, visionary leadership we have come to expect and perhaps even deserve in moments like this.

How did this happen? This is a question I've been asking myself recently. It is easy to put the blame at the doorstep of former President Trump, at least in the U.S. Certainly, there is much to criticize in the successive failures of that administration. Yet, although it’s still early, I don't see the sort of bold leadership emerging from the new administration. Nor have there been examples of extraordinary leadership from other countries, notwithstanding the efforts of a select group of authoritarian regimes or smaller, isolated countries whose successes have derived more from political, geographic, and demographic factors than from leadership itself.

No. What is happening is something more deeply rooted. Something that has been unfolding for some time. To borrow a phrase from the late rabbi and author Edwin Friedman, we are witnessing a complete and utter failure of nerve. A spinelessness born out of the times. A desire (in many cases well-intended) to please and include at the expense of doing what's right and what’s necessary. An addiction to data and prove-ability to the neglect of imagination and intelligent risk-taking.


In a strange way, Trump's appeal – indeed, his actual strength – came from his spine. He had a backbone. And his support, I believe, derived from a recognition that most leaders had lost theirs. The problem was he had almost no virtue. No wisdom, compassion, courage, temperance. In other words, no character. Backbone without character is a disaster. It's not rooted in anything. It is reckless and wild. At best, it will result in a set of random, erratic, and impulsive acts with no sense of what is guiding them. At worst, it will threaten to undermine the very foundation of what is being led. This is what we experienced as a country. For some, it represented a moral stain on the great fabric of this nation. For others, it was experienced as a source of relief from an epidemic of spinelessness.

You can't lead effectively unless you have both. The character to see, say, and do what is right, and the backbone to follow through. To persist despite the inevitable toxic and counter-evolutionary resistance that great leadership in challenging times always encounters.


If you've been reading these weekly emails regularly, you may know what's coming next. It's easy to take potshots at our public officials. And perhaps we should. After all, they are accountable to us. But the more important question is: are you leading with character and backbone? I have asked myself this question repeatedly this past year. How can I get all of the benefits of leading with compassion, wisdom, and, yes, even love, but not fall prey to the fool's errand of trying to make everyone happy? And how do I lead with decisiveness and boldness without leaving people behind and disenfranchising them at a time when we need just the opposite? This is the current leadership challenge of our time. It is up to each one of us to rise to the occasion.


Tuesday Tips

  1. The failure to integrate character and backbone is on display in California right now. Check out Ezra Klein’s latest opinion, “California Is Making Liberals Squirm” in the New York Times.

  2. For all it has accomplished as a newspaper historically and over the last few years, the New York Times is facing its own challenge. One that many argue it is failing. It is worth reading the current debate over what happened with Slate Star Codex. Here’s the New York Times piece. And here’s Scott Siskind’s response.

  3. For a wonderful piece on virtue and wisdom, I really enjoyed the latest from Arthur Brooks in his “How to Build a Life” column in The Atlantic, “The Subtle Mindset Shift that Could Radically Change the Way You See the World.”

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