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Leadership: Vision and Wisdom

IWP US Army War College Fellow CH (LTC) Karen Meeker gave remarks on leadership at an open hosue for graduates and their guests on May 20, 2016.  Following her remarks, she presented IWP with a piece of artwork entitled “Legacy” by Steve Alpert on behalf of all of the 2015-16 IWP Army Fellows. Her remarks, entitled “Leadership: Vision and Wisdom,” may be found below.


Leadership: Vision and Wisdom

“A wise warrior is better than a strong one, and a man of knowledge than one of strength…”  Proverbs 24.5

Karen Meeker, May 2016Pundits who populate the DC area describe the current situation of our Nation and the world as complex, rapidly changing, and uncertain.  Leaders do not have the luxury to simply describe.  Leaders must assess situations, make decisions, and deal with the consequences.  Pundits, subject matter experts, pollsters, and commentators analyze and critique.  Leaders carry the burden of consequence and must constantly readjust to current and emerging threats.  Military leaders especially know the gravity of leadership responsibility as life and limb hang in the balance. 

Several years ago when visiting wounded warriors at Walter Reed, there was a young combat veteran who lost both of his legs in an IED explosion.  When talking about his predicament, he said, “I miss my friends more.”  Today’s young men and women who join the military in a time of war are truly among the most admirable people on the planet.  These heroes are the smart, athletic, talented, and tough Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Coasts Guardsmen of the U.S. Armed Forces.  Military leaders have the awesome mission of leading America’s sons and daughters, the true treasure of our Nation, into combat.  They must get it right. 

Of the many aspects of leadership, I would like to highlight vision and wisdom in our short time together this evening.  Leaders who possess vision of what could be and the wisdom to know how to achieve that vision are the truly great leaders of our time and perhaps of any time.  There are people who occupy positions of leadership, but if nobody is following, then that person is not a leader.  Leaders who are able to chart a course toward an articulated goal are the rare individuals who others want to follow. 

Vision has several helpful qualities.  Vision inspires people to serve toward a common goal for the common good.  Psychologically it is easier to strive toward something.  To not know where an organization is heading can lead to angst, doubt, and distrust.  Americans are not robots!  Americans are fiercely independent, opinionated, and mobile.  Effective leaders can see how things could be better and are able to rally such a disparate, determined tribe to achieve a worthy endstate. 

Vision also keeps the leader inspired and on track.  Commencement is full of excitement and promise for the future.  Degree in hand, graduates are ready to face the world undaunted.  These graduates would not have started this venture if they were not people who have a passion to make this world a better place.  That being said, the excitement can quickly fade after a couple of years working in government.  Graduates, do not allow this to happen to you.  Look to the leadership at IWP.  Dr. Lenczowski, Amb Woolsey, Dean Owens, and all the rest who could easily have retired to a life of leisure long ago and yet here they are still investing in the well being of our Nation and world.  They call all of us to keep pressing on toward a higher calling.  They inspire me. 

Vision toward a greater good keeps the focus on servant leadership.  Positions of prominence come with power and authority which can be corrosive to even a person of strong character.  Perks of power can lure like the Siren for those unwary of its magnetic enchantment.  So it is important for the leader to stay focused on what and who is at stake.  Assessing the effect of the “vision” has on one’s staff and one’s family is a good way to determine if things are properly prioritized.  If one’s family and staff is getting decimated in the process, then perhaps the person in leadership is too focused on him or herself or just doesn’t possess the necessary skills to lead.  What good is a vision if one loses one’s soul or family?  While we are out “saving the world,” we should never forget our family commitments.  While life is filled with many challenges, sometimes the greatest leadership challenge is in one’s own home and that might just be the one of greatest importance. (1) 

Wisdom is the other characteristic of leadership I would like to talk about tonight.  Conducting an informal survey as to what kind of leader people want – one with charisma or one with wisdom?  While charisma is attractive and people are drawn to a leader with flair and energy, people predominantly chose the leader with wisdom.  Particularly in the military, there’s a desire for a wise leader.  Great to have a cheerleader to motivate, but a wise leader is the best hope to accomplish the mission and get everybody home intact.  Jim Michaels’ book, A Chance in Hell, retells the events surrounding the Sunni Awakening in Ramadi in 2006.  Ramadi was infested with Al Qaeda. (2)  Many Soldiers, Marines, and Iraqi’s were getting killed and wounded.  Then COL Sean MacFarland arrives in Ramadi commanding the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Armored Division.  The Marines were skeptical, concerned even, because he did not appear be the GEN Patton of flamboyant military leaders.  Very soon though they would see he was a man of great wisdom and were grateful to have him.  Alasdair MacIntyre described his leadership as prudence with courage. (3)  He assessed a very difficult situation and made the decision to arm the local militia.  After a tough year of continued bloodshed, they were able to rid AQ from Ramadi which turned things around for the entire country.  Now LTG MacFarland is the senior US commander for Iraq and Syria.  Please keep him in your prayers. 

The Scriptures speak of wisdom as more precious than silver and jewels.  How does one get wisdom?  Smart people learn from those who have wisdom. (4)  There is a lot of wisdom to be found here in Marlatt Mansion for those seeking it.  One of the many things I like about IWP is that it has a “roll up your sleeves” feel.  The faculty and staff are proven practioners coming from corporate, government, military who are dedicated to teaching the next generation of leaders.  These are not cloistered academicians.  We are blessed to have such sages who avail themselves to all of us.  A harder, yet highly effective way wisdom is gained is through experience. (5)  It is usually preceded by, “that didn’t work out quite like I thought it would.”  A fool repeats the mistake.  A wise person learns from failure.  Being humble is another way to become wise. (6)  Humility says, “I don’t know everything.”  Humility recognizes the fact that there is always more to learn and understand.  With humility, there is an openness to learn from many different sources and to keep learning throughout life.  A humble leader takes a knee in reverence to God like General George Washington whose iconic painting by Arnold Friberg shows the general imploring God’s counsel before crossing the Delaware River in a surprise attack. (7)  King Solomon said, “The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.” (8)  Acknowledging a Holy God recognizes that we are not God and thus allows us to receive divine guidance.  Understanding the presence of a just God makes one ultimately accountable.  With fear and trepidation, humble, servant leaders think twice and pray always as to the grave decisions they make forever remembering those who will give their full measure of devotion. 

Our Nation is looking for leaders who will bring a vision of what could be and wisely give direction in this chaotic and confusing world situation.  I am thankful for these graduates who have taken up this challenge.  Congratulations on your graduation.  May God be with you as you go from here to lead with vision and wisdom.  God bless you. 

“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” (9)

Chaplain (LTC) Karen Meeker
Army War College Fellow
The Institute of World Politics
Reception on the eve of IWP Commencement 2016
May 20, 2016

1.  “God stores up success for the upright; God is a shield for those who live with integrity so that He may guard the paths of justice and protect the way of His loyal followers.” Proverbs 2.7,8 HCB

2.  “It was hard to escape the conclusion that the success in Ramadi was more about the art – not the science – of war.  It was a story about leadership and how the decisions of individuals can change the tide of history.” Michaels, Jim, A Chance in Hell:  The Men Who Triumphed Over Iraq’s Deadliest City and Turned the Tide of the War (St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2010) 2.

3.  MacIntyre, Alasdair chapter, Military Ethics:  A Discipline in Crisis, is the opening chapter of Routledge Handbook of Military Ethics, 2015.

4.  “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise…” Proverbs 13.20a NSRV

5.  “…though [the righteous] fall seven times, they will rise again…” Proverbs 24.16 NSRV

6.  “…with humility comes wisdom.” Proverbs 11.2b

7.  Arnold Friberg’s painting entitled, The Prayer at Valley Forge, 1974. 

8.  Proverbs 1.7

9.  Proverbs 29.28