Search This Blog

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Trust and Leadership, Horses and Men, Fraternities, War, and Community

Hold trust as sacred. A fragile web of trust holds us together. Through intimacy, we are deeply vulnerable, and we rely on each other to keep us safe. Trust can take years to build, and only a single moment to destroy. Keeping confidences, honoring agreements, and cherishing the love and friendship as a precious gift will assure lasting trust. - Louise Desmond, The Peace Book

Have you ever experienced a theme building in your thoughts over a few days’ time, growing and nurtured by a series of coincidences? Tuesday NPR had an evening segment on trust, to which I was listening with half an ear while trying to read at the same time. Listeners to the radio program were asked to call in to tell about times their trust had been betrayed or times when they had managed to rebuild lost trust. I turned the radio off after a while to concentrate on my book, but the only callers I heard before clicking the dial were telling stories of how they had been betrayed. 

I’m sure we all have stories of our trust being abused. I wonder, do we ever tell stories of how we have broken trust with someone else? Do we even know when we’ve done it? And if we ever “betrayed” unknowingly, maybe there have been times when another was unaware of violating our trust, too? How often when trust is broken between two people is the issue discussed openly and attempts made to heal? Marriage counseling tries to do this, but what about inadvertent, unconscious betrayals — this is the question that came into my mind — between those not bound together by vows? Friends? People who work together? Members of a community?

The book I turned off the radio to read was not Louise Desmond’s but Mark Rashid’s, and his was a book not on the large topic of peace but on the practical matter of training a horse as one’s partner. There again, however, the crux of the issue was trust. Basically, if the horse has learned to trust its rider, the rider can trust the horse. It’s a two-way street. Because that’s what partnership is. It is not — cannot be — a struggle for domination but an agreement to honor one another and try to understand the other’s point of view.

In Horses Never Lie: The Heart of Passive Leadership (I discussed this book at length in a post on one of my other blogs; it’s the last book discussed in a lengthy rambling over various unrelated recent readings), Mark Rashid tells how he observed that in herds of horses it is not the dominant alpha that has the herd’s trust. The alpha is seen as a “leader” by human beings because it is, so to speak, at the top of the food chain: the alpha eats first, drinks first, takes its place in desirable shade, and mates when and where it chooses. (I use the impersonal rather than a gendered pronoun because the alpha in a herd may well be a mare.) The alpha holds onto its position with threats, kicks, and bites, intimidating the rest of the horses. The alpha rules by fear. 

By contrast, Mark Rashid observed another kind of herd leader not previously recognized or given a title in equine literature. He calls this other a “passive” leader because it is chosen by the herd without initially seeking a leadership position. The “passive” leader is the one the herd can trust. The rest of the herd will avoid the bullying alpha and follow the dependable “passive” leader. See my other post for more explanation, or, better yet, read Mark Rashid’s book. 

Rashid advocates that human trainers and riders learn to recognize and take advantage of the horse’s need and desire for leadership if they are looking for a partner relationship with their horse.

One story in his book tells of an owner who had been taught by a trainer to “correct” her horse with a heavy hand whenever it was “disrespectful” of her alpha status. The problem is (and this is true between human beings, whether parents and children, employers and workers, or any other human relationship, hierarchical or apparently equal) that the lessons we often think we are giving are not necessarily the lessons being learned. In this case, Rashid notes, the owner and the horse had entirely different perceptions of the situation. The horse was learning not respect but fear and avoidance.

Horses are herd animals. A solitary horse does survive long in the wild, and so horses look for a leader to keep them safe. In a threatening situation, in the absence of a leader, a horse will use the only defenses it has to stay safe. It will seek to avoid the threat (e.g., get away from the bully), but if escape is not an option and the threat escalates, the horse will kick or even bite. Horses seldom turn “killer,” though. First they look for help. 
The key, then, is to find a way to get horses to see you as the individual who can help them when they need it. - Mark Rashid, Horses Never Lie

All this stuff about horses and trust was in my head the next morning as I drove to Northport, and that morning NPR’s 1A program with Joshua Johnson focused on terrible stories of trust betrayed, fraternity brothers' brutal “hazing” torture of new pledges, the most horrid resulting in the pledge’s death, all recorded on video surveillance camera in the frat house. I’m not going to go into detail about the specific case, which you can read about by following the link above (and elsewhere), and you probably already know that fraternity hazing in the United States involves periods of sleep deprivation and slavery to the whims of the “brotherhood,” forced consumption of poisonous amounts of alcohol, and various physical tests, some amounting to nearly incredible torture of the kind ten-year-olds (probably boys) might imagine for their enemies, such as eating and drinking barrels of mixed vile concoctions that could include human vomit. The supposed point of all these tests is to prove one’s manhood and worthiness to become a “brother.” 

Again, listeners to the program were asked to call in with their own stories, and more than one man recalled his own hazing experience and its aftermath with deep ambivalence. One admitted it was a wonder he had survived but also said the bonds formed were deep and unbreakable because of the testing. 

I recall getting together a “club” with a friend when we were about ten years old. We were girls, so the tests were mild. One I recall involved standing barefoot in the snow for a certain length of time. Another mandated total secrecy: not even the existence of the club was to be revealed to another living soul! Boys might have come up with more serious risk-taking, perhaps ordering each other to jump off a garage roof. But what makes sense to ten-year-olds is not what we expect of university-sanctioned organizations for students aged eighteen, nineteen, twenty and twenty-one years old. 

Listening to the radio program and the avowals of “brotherhood” gained through the hazing experience, it occurred to me that joining a fraternity, for many young American males, bears the burden of standing in for truer, more realistic experiences of coming into manhood, such as that gained through joining the military and submitting to rigorous physical training. Without the female’s biological ruptures — menarche, tearing of the hymen, and childbirth — human males of all cultures have always sought to create ways to separate the boys from the men. Fraternity hazing, though, I couldn’t help thinking, was a pretty pathetic substitute for a wilderness vision quest, going off to sea, or joining the military.

That very evening we went to Traverse City for another National Writers Series event, this one a conversation with Philip Caputo and Sebastian Junger, led by Jack Segal, and the focus of the evening’s discussion was war. War, combat experience, camaraderie, and returning home from war a different person to a society very different from battlefield life. In a combat platoon, Junger emphasized, every individual is necessary, not for his individuality but for his contribution to the group, because battlefield life is all about collective survival, and survival of the group depends on every individual being willing to give his life for the group’s survival. In this situation, then, very intense, deep, and lasting bonds are formed between soldiers, because they are trusting each other with their lives and willing to sacrifice their lives for each other. 

Because all this was already in my mind, I was forcibly struck by the difference between fraternity life and military life. Think about it. In war, a captured soldier resists giving information under torture as long as possible to protect his fellow soldiers, his platoon brothers. In the frat house, the brothers are the torturers. In a war zone, soldiers risk their lives to recover a missing or injured buddy. In the Penn State case, the dying pledge was left to die alone: after his “brothers” had punched and shaken him and poured water over him, they left him to “sleep off” his fatal injuries. In one situation, trust is essential to survival. In the other, it seems that survival comes down to surviving betrayal. 

(Is that too simple?)

In a combat platoon, you’re never alone, and the return to civilian life is a shock in part because it is a return to emotional isolation, to life in a culture that values individual achievement over group cohesiveness and survival. In fact, the individual often has to "betray" his group in order to succeed, to come out on top. Perhaps, then, fraternity hazing is a preparation for American adulthood? The lesson might be something like “You’re on your own! Sink or swim!” If you sink, of course, “you’re not one of us,” but then, realistically, you’re never securely and permanently “one of us” in a culture of individuality, because you might fail at some future time, and no one wants to be on the same team as a “loser.” 

In the Q&A with audience following the house-lights-off discussion, Caputo and Junger were asked by an audience member what kind of experience might substitute for war in developing community among individuals. (Certainly the corporate world offers no such opportunity. Quite the opposite.) Both writers recommended community involvement, Junger advocating a program of mandatory national service — or even “international,” he added, having previously mentioned returning Peace Corps volunteers having some of the same difficulties as returning military veterans. Sacrifice, he said (and I’m paraphrasing), produces commitment and loyalty. 

Both writers (Caputo a Vietnam veteran, Junger a war journalist "in front of the front lines" in Afghanistan) stressed the importance of finding meaning, not simply adrenaline rushes, in wartime experience. The problem, then, is to find meaning in life before or after or in the absence of war. Both emphasized that the key to meaning lies in belonging to “something bigger than yourself.”

It occurred to me on the way home that for many young people organized sports might provide an early experience of interdependence and group solidarity. My own formative group experience from 4th grade through high school came through orchestra and later, for my senior year, drama. Players in an orchestra, like cast and crew in a play production, have to work together, trust one another, and submerge their ordinary identities in the larger whole focused on performance. There is a lot of discipline involved, too. Orchestra and drama are not just fooling around! With many musical instruments (this is certainly true for violinists), there is also a great degree of physical endurance required. Orchestral membership is a life for some musicians, while the run of a play is more limited, but both offer young people, I believe, a chance to belong to something bigger than themselves. We were not, of course, risking our lives!

But -- Trust the orchestra director and each other. Trust the director and fellow cast and crew members. Trust your coach and your team members. A bad coach or breakaway grandstander betrays the whole.

I’m not sure where I’m left at this point. I’ll be attending a community meeting later this month, the first I’ve gone to in a couple of years. For a long time I went to local meetings all the time — village meetings, township meetings, school board meetings, Chamber of Commerce meetings, planning and visioning meetings. Then I lost heart. I didn’t feel, as Sebastian Junger said, necessary to any local group or larger community. Quite honestly, if my bookstore were to close tomorrow and never re-open, the township library would go on, and people would have no difficulty buying books from online sites. Also — and this is always relevant in a village, sometimes in large, traditional cities, too — even if I live to be 100 in Northport, there’s no way I’ll ever have grandparents buried in the township cemetery, and my family’s stories have no place in local history. 

A very good friend just the other day questioned a certain man’s claim to be “local,” saying, “I wanted to ask him how long he’s been here!” My bookstore will be 25 years old in July of 2018, but I was born in South Dakota, grew up in Illinois, and spent years living downstate before coming to Leelanau County.

What does this have to do with trust? I think when we talk about trust, we’re talking about knowing, deep in our bones, that someone cares about us. Loyalty is part of it but can’t be the whole story. I don’t know. 

And now I’m thinking once again of the question I began with, the ways in which we give others the unintended message that we don’t care about them. I guess, basically, if we want to be trusted, we have to take our place and hold it calmly, like the “passive” leader in the herd of horses, not seeking confrontation or demanding attention and “respect” but going about our business in a quiet, consistent manner, ready to stop and pay attention, to listen, and, as Mark Rashid says, to let the other horses have their say. Everyone wants to be heard.

Is this enough? I’m still mulling it all over, wondering what ideas and insights will come along next to add to what I’ve already got.


Related worthwhile groups to explore in connection with topics discussed above are With Honor, a an organization dedicated to encouraging veterans to run for Congress and serve in a cross-partisan manner, and Reining Liberty Ranch, a Traverse City nonprofit promoting physical, relational, and emotional health, primarily for veterans and their families, through equine therapy.



Mr G said...

Very thought provoking. The comradery of soldiers in times of war is certainly a very special circumstance.

P. J. Grath said...

Thanks, Steve. I was hoping you would leave a comment along the lines of what you were saying in the bookstore, about musicians in a section having to listen to each other to keep their staccato notes together. You emphasized, rightly, the word LISTEN, and that seemed right in line with what the horse trainer wrote.

Someone else sent me a copy by e-mail. It read as follows: "I don’t have time for a longer reply, but want to say that I think that the matter of trust is REALLY important. The interesting thing about small group trust is that it tends to be exclusive — the stronger it is, the more it shuts out the outside. Anyway, this is all very much my kind of concern. I’m leaving in the A.M. for a week with family, but I’d like to do more with the general topic."