Thursday, April 28, 2005

Kicking and Kissing

President Bush’s nominee for ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, has encountered resistance in being confirmed for a number of reasons, not least of which is his apparent abrasiveness with people. Subordinates describe a boss who borders on tyrannical; colleagues describe someone with a “kiss up, kick down” management philosophy, and at least one former boss quietly expresses reservations about his, ahem, lack of diplomatic skills for this, ahem, diplomatic post.

Others defend this behavior by saying that he is a passionate man of action who fights against the ineffective status quo and will provide the “shake-up” that the United Nations needs from the U.S. representative there. Failure to confirm him, they say, will send a message that the only way to succeed in the State Department is to adopt a “go along, get along” demeanor so that past arguments and frictions will never come back to haunt you. And of course this kind of bureaucratic survival and get-ahead philosophy does not serve the larger interests of the State Department or the United States.

It’s an interesting dilemma and one that intrigues me. On the one hand I have a predisposition to disdain people who are rude or abusive to subordinates and colleagues, even when it’s at the service of “genius” or “passion.” Maybe it’s my Southern upbringing; maybe it’s the antagonism I feel for bullies. But I’ve always felt that this reflects a character flaw. Particularly the “kiss up, kick down” part. C’mon. If someone is so passionate and so full of genius, let me see him “kick up, kiss down.” Now that would impress me. Show me it’s about principle and not about advancing yourself

On the other hand I don’t have much, if any, “genius” or “revolutionary” in me and I recognize that “elite” talents have a different mindset that often serves to fuel their accomplishment. When I hear about a world-class athlete, for instance, who trashes a locker room after losing a game my first instinct is to regard it critically. But I recognize that it’s this very passion that makes him so good. I don’t share it, but I can admire and appreciate it (as long as he pays for the locker room damage).

Still, I can’t buy the argument that “genius and passion” must express themselves without restraint. Again, especially when it involves people serving “beneath” you. I recall the sacking of Howell Raines, editor of The New York Times, a few years ago, and the comment of one of his colleagues who noted, “He treated people on the way up as if he never expected to encounter them on the way down.” When Raines needed peoples’ loyalty, there was little to draw on.

I think of top performers like John Wooden, who was a Christian gentlemen throughout his tenure to and at the top, elite athletes like Magic Johnson and Joe Montana and public servants like Colin Powell (the list could go on and on), who achieved passionate excellence while, as far as I know, conducting themselves honorably towards others.

Take note of how Jesus conducted himself. The more powerful the person, the harder he was on them. The less powerful, the more merciful. Call it “kiss down, push up.” Now that’s passionate genius I’d like to emulate.


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