A Dead Father Speaks to his Son

by rthieme on November 29, 2006

In sixteen years of professional ministry and subsequently as a consultant and speaker, I concluded that three things are needed for organizations to be effective:  mutuality, feedback, and accountability. The absence of any one skews behaviors in predictable directions.
Mutuality means real cooperation, real teamwork.

Feedback means loops both inside and to the outside of the system in proportion to the speed of the flow of information into and out of and within the system.

Accountability requires leadership and systemic attributes sustained and reinforced by that leadership to ensure that action happens, not just chatter.

It also happens that during times of rapid change, people become rigid, isolated, and fearful, and M F and A are antidotes to that condition.
The devil of course is in the details, the execution, how structures of M F and A are created, sustained, refreshed. That’s when insight turns into consulting. A lot depends on the organizational culture and how it inhibits or accelerates effectiveness. It also depends on the willingness of leaders to build the same kinds of structures into their personal and professional lives.

I thought of this when I read a diary this week that my father wrote in 1946. He was a metallurgist of note and one of a small group of civilians who went to Europe shortly after the war to make recommendations for the allocation of scrap metal. He traveled with a military escort from the beaches to Berlin. Thousands of displaced persons were everywhere, more thousands of bodies were decaying in the rubble, and the reek of death was everywhere. Germany and much of Europe was in ruins.

What is the relevance of what he describes to our situation today?

No one he encountered from industrial leaders to military brass felt confident about the future. Standing in the rubble, no one thought that rehabilitation would be easy and few had ideas about how to do it. The leaders he met were nervous because they were being criticized by pundits in America far from the scenes of devastation. They hoped Truman would lead but didn’t know if he would or could.
Everywhere he went, there was hunger, desperation, and chaos. In Rome, he was warned not to leave the hotel without an escort because people were being murdered on the streets for their clothing. There was disease everywhere, predatory bands of criminals and those seeking revenge. Little and big civil wars threatened the continent. Hanging over all, of course, the Soviet Union appeared poised to march to the Atlantic.

Only in retrospect can we see that we did the right thing, haltingly, and heroically, to recreate European civilization. The effort involved plenty of mutuality, feedback, and accountability, and the difference between Germany today and what my father described only 60 years ago is absolute.

We’re talking everywhere about big issues in a complicated and often chaotic world. We’re struggling to arrive at sane policies and ways to execute them. Many are expressing feelings of frustration and powerlessness, a lot of them esteemed veterans with significant achievements, the kinds of people others might hear and think that they of all people have their hands on throttles of power. Yet all of us some of the time and some of us all of the time feel helpless to make much of a difference.

Maybe the difference we wish we could make is impossible to make. But maybe
the little differences that we do and can make feed streams that in turn feed
a bigger river.

I feel powerless too, but for good reason: I am. I filter and sift streams of information from diverse sources, documents by the thousands, reading and scanning and writing and thinking and speaking … and when someone out there remarks, as one recently did, that I’m “an influencer,” I roar with laughter. I can’t influence my toast into darkening, is how it feels, most of the time.

The only way to control the world, I do know deeply, is to allow things simply to take their course.

My father clearly felt that he was influencing policy on that trip, and he did. But he also dropped dead the year after he wrote that book, when I was 2 years old. The rest of the family, who might have shared anecdotes about him, died long ago too. That diary is all I have. I read his words sixty years later and boy, I wish I could talk to him about what he wrote. About all this.

His words reveal a difficult, brilliant man and I salute my genetic heritage like a good soldier. But his premature death removed from my life a context which he would have embodied in the flesh, a model of one way to make sense of seeming contradictions. The reconciliation of opposites in our lives is always imperfect, but that very imperfection is a gift, leading us to accept our humanity – and the humanity of others. There are few answers but there is genuine relief in not having to puzzle it all out for ourselves. Community in and of itself is redemptive.

I am grateful for friends and mentors, colleagues and communities, and grateful that others including my father wrote or said anything at all.  Those words, for a few moments, before the paper on which they are printed or the storage medium holding their digital form, disintegrates, are sustaining. We are all suspended in space, building together the next section of a bridge across the chasm out of planks taken from behind.  Images of the recent past, torn up and assembled in new configurations, offer good enough images of possibility and promise to keep us moving. Our shared words, the matrix of our mutuality, build a platform on which we somehow bootstrap ourselves against all odds, creating possibilities out of thin air.

Through feedback mediated by collegial structures we come to those wonderful moments when our self-importance vanishes and we get, we really get, that what we don’t know is so much bigger than we are. Only through a matrix of collegiality, good will, and generosity of spirit are we sustained in our endeavors and get anywhere at all. Perpetuating that vision, we sustain a larger perspective and are able to live with realistic hope.

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