Whose List Are You On?

I decided to try out my new Blu-Ray player with a bang so I grabbed—what else?—“The Expendables.” This 2010 homage to ‘80’s action movies features a rogues’ gallery of action stars including stalwarts Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren, Bruce Willis, Jet Li, Mickey Rourke, and of course, Arnold in a cameo.

The reviews were mixed, but the box office returns were impressive, so whether it was the intense action, the stunts, the weaponry or the in-your-face high resolution, I enjoyed the ride.

At one memorable point in the film, Willis, Stallone, and Schwarzenegger appear in the same scene for the first time in their collective careers. There are any number of little lessons you could take away.

You might say, “It’s never too late to do what you might have done,” or “You’re never too old,” or perhaps something along the lines of, “You’re only as old as you allow yourself to be defined to be.” But those chestnuts are, well, old.

I like this lesson better. In the scene, Mr. Church (Willis) is interviewing mercenaries Ross (Stallone) and Mauser (Schwarzenegger) for the job of overthrowing a Latin American dictator. Church tells them, “Both your names came to the top of the list.”

As we go into the new year, many people are busy compiling their own “to-do” lists. But perhaps our focus might be better spent trying to make it to the top of someone else’s list. Getting the attention of a Mr. Church looking to hire the best for a job you’re good at.

So who’s list do you want to be on, and what can you do to get to the top of it? That might be something worth shooting for.

Why You Need to Be “The One”

Four simple, yet profound, lessons from an ancient philosopher still ring true today.

“Of every hundred men, Ten shouldn’t even be there
Eighty are nothing but targets
Nine are real fighters…We are lucky to have them…
…They make the battle.
Ah, but the One, One of them is a Warrior…
…and He will bring the others back.”

–Heraclitus (circa 500 B.C.)

These powerful words are widely attributed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. Nothing of what he wrote survives, so we have to rely on other philosophers who quoted him. While the “Warrior” Heraclitus refers to is presumably an armed combatant, his observations apply readily to the battlefield of the business world today.

“Of every hundred men, Ten shouldn’t even be there”

We’ve all known and worked with people like this. You wonder, “How the heck did he get this job?” or “Why is she still here?” There are many reasons but they are not worth some pre-Socratic contemplation. The incompetent have always been in the workplace— at all levels— but their days are numbered.

“Eighty are nothing but targets…”

Organizations are filled with many good people, hard working, and dutifully putting in their time. Unfortunately, they can be oblivious to changes taking places both inside and outside the company. They are often the ones trusting safety in numbers, banking on the ax falling on someone else. If you are among their ranks and tempted to keep your head down and nose clean, don’t count on this approach to keep working. Your only ally is the luck of the draw, and Lady Luck hasn’t been too kind lately.

“Nine are real fighters…We are lucky to have them……They make the battle.”

The fighter is who we want to be, perhaps who we imagine ourselves to be. These are people willing to take chances and look for new opportunities. They’re in the game, working smart and hard, and getting demonstrable results. The company can’t grow without them. But it can and does replace them, either when they fall or when their usefulness ends.

“Ah, but the One, One of them is a Warrior…and He will bring the others back.”

The One. That one. The person who doesn’t just inhabit his job but makes his role come alive. While he might be irreplaceable he knows that he can be replaced so he is constantly updating his skills, reading, keeping up with trends, always with an eye out for storms and opportunities on the horizon. He knows a moving target is tough to hit. He has an engaging, positive outlook even when the going gets tough. He helps pull others up, even as he plots his next foothold on the corporate edifice. He knows being The One is not easy, and there are never any guarantees.

Heraclitus believed change to be the sole constant of the universe. The One is always preparing and adapting to it. Perhaps it’s time to focus on becoming “The One” at whatever it is we do. Or else we might wind up as Heraclitus himself did. Angry, bitter, and wandering the rock-strewn badlands of his ancient world, eating grass.

The Forgotten Founder

In Memory of the most brilliant soldier of the Continental Army who was desperately wounded on this spot, winning for his countrymen the Decisive Battle of the American Revolution and for himself the rank of Major General. —”Boot Monument,” Saratoga, New York

On the Fourth of July we celebrate the birthday of the United States and reflect upon the amazing pantheon of Founding Fathers. There’s George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Sam Adams, Richard Henry Lee, John Adams, Ben Franklin, and the many brave signers of the Declaration of Independence.  Men who risked it all to throw off the yoke of oppression.

But usually absent from our thoughts is the name of a man whose revolutionary accomplishments are no less worthy but forever stained by an act of betrayal.

Major General Benedict Arnold.

Arnold’s name today is synonymous with “traitor” and thrown around as a schoolyard taunt. But Arnold the American general is a man without whom American independence quite possibly would never have happened.

Arnold was a man with deep business and family roots in the New World. He was a Connecticut merchant and pharmacist and the great-grandson of a Rhode Island governor.  When the Revolutionary War broke out Arnold—a militia captain and patriot—distinguished himself with acts of cunning and bravery at Lexington and Concord and the surprise capture of  Fort Ticonderoga. The British found Arnold a worthy adversary and he quickly rose to become George Washington’s most valuable general and trusted friend.

Hailed as the “Hero of Saratoga,” Benedict Arnold was a commander who garnered the respect of his men by leading from the front lines, having his horse shot out from under him and his leg shattered by a bullet. Arnold’s fearlessness and strategic mind turned the tide of the Revolution and convinced the French to join the cause—a singular event that helped the Americans ultimately win the war.

Today, there are but a few remnants of Arnold’s battlefield prowess. There is the Boot Monument at Saratoga that attests to Arnold’s bravery, and a plaque in the West Point chapel recognizing him as one of America’s greatest generals. But on both, Arnold’s name is purposefully absent. That’s because he conspired to turn his command—West Point itself—over to the British in exchange for the rank of brigadier general, and £6,000.

Historians have long considered the reasons for Arnold’s treachery; that his accomplishments went unrecognized by the Continental Congress; other officers were given the credit for his actions; coveted promotions went to more connected native sons; or perhaps even the influence of the loyalist sympathies of his young wife.

Had Arnold not made the decision to switch sides, today he would be venerated along with the other Founders. It has been proposed that history might even have regarded him as an equal to Washington himself.  Arnold’s visage would probably be on our currency, and we might be shopping for bargains on his birthday.

In  war and in business and life you have to take risks. Sometimes big risks. You have to decide which side you’re on, often in the thick of it, without knowing the outcome or the ultimate consequences. It’s the chance you take when you get off the sidelines and jump into the fray. You make friends, and enemies. Arnold paid a steep price, drawing the ire of a new nation, losing a legacy of greatness, and never fully gaining the trust or respect of the British. He died as a far lesser man.

It’s a lesson worth considering in a world that places increasing emphasis on short-term gain and personal interests, and less on loyalty and honor.  A lesson indeed.


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