In my opinion, writing is performing a service. Or a precursor to the offering of a service that is truly meaningful.
Because writing requires deep intellectual engagement before any action is started. A probe that goes deep into our selfhood and pulls out who and what we are, thereby giving us insights into the world in all its dimensions.
Writing causes a better understanding of our strengths, weaknesses, and potential.
Most of all, it makes our unique and beneficial leadership qualities come to the surface. And gives us courage to use them for the common good.
It is the reverse of the kind of service depicted in The Nun’s Story. Sister Luke was expected to disappear into a collective of those giving allegiance to a core set of beliefs. She was asked repeatedly to sacrifice everything she believed herself to be.
Her writing was limited to keeping medical notes used in nursing or a record of when she was too prideful. Or unable to comply with the rules of her order or proper living.
It worked somewhat, until that sacrifice became unbearable. Coping with the reality of war, the loss of her father, and trying to answer questions not provided by faith alone. To use her intellect and insights to confront evil and serve humanity in a creative way.
My experience in the military was similar. Allowing myself to buy into the military culture until I could not.
The tank is not an object that promotes warm feelings. Nor are its weapons, ammunition, and the human skills needed to make them work effectively. A tank is a death-dealing machine that can also cause massive destruction to buildings and infrastructure. No redeeming value except as a tool to kill and hurt other human beings. Those we identify as the enemy. People like us. Taught to identify us as the enemy.
During my time in the military I wrote letters. Often to my mother and father. Eventually to my fiancé, who later became my wife. Much of my writing focused on how I felt about my work.
That writing made me think about what I was doing at the time and how I felt about it.
By the time I left the Regular Army and National Guard, I had earned a master’s degree and begun a doctoral program in educational leadership. In the Guard, I was encouraged to attend the Advanced Armor Officer School at Fort Knox, Kentucky.
At age 26 I had already attained the rank of captain and was being groomed to become a field grade officer within a few years. Completing advanced combat courses, and later programs referred to as Command and General Staff Officers’ Courses. They pretty much assured promotion up to and through the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Those with advanced degrees who could also write, teach, and effectively manage a unit command were at a real advantage. Combat commanders, while often recognized for their courage and skills in leading successful campaigns under hostile fire, did not always achieve high rank.
As a student of history, it was evident that leaders like Dwight Eisenhower and Colin Powell were successful in the army because they communicated well. They accepted and succeeded in fulfilling difficult managerial responsibilities. Powell served as a small unit commander in Vietnam. But Eisenhower never had such an experience. His skills were both managerial and collaborative decision-making. Especially among diverse and domineering personalities such as those involved with the Allied War Effort in WW II.
And Eisenhower wrote very well.
I admired these men. But I often wondered if their accomplishments were more related to career success than selfless service. My ultimate conclusion was both.
As an 18-year-old private first class in an Army reserve unit, I was asked by a sergeant to conduct a short instructional program on how to use a particular piece of equipment. Since I had no idea how to use that equipment, I turned to the Army field manual. It soon became clear why the sergeant asked me to conduct the instruction.
The technical writing used in the manual was gobbledygook. Filled with military jargon and convoluted instructions. To develop a lesson plan, I rewrote the most critical part of the manual, creating a step-by-step visual for classroom use.
An officer who watched my instruction was critical of my rewriting the manual. But he admitted that the resultant lesson was more lucid and understandable. How insubordinate I was! To have the nerve to redo a document written by a college educated officer skilled in technical writing and use of that piece of equipment.
That experience taught me a valuable lesson. My initiative was a service to the Army and the men who participated in the class. To the disapproving officer, I was an insubordinate young soldier exercising an initiative that would hurt my chances for promotion.
Instead, I circumvented the system and became an officer. With the goal of serving competently, not to just advance my military career.
Eisenhower and Powell also circumvented the rigid “by the book” system. Eisenhower was the architect of the campaign to rid Europe of the Nazi scourge. His leadership often put him into conflict with politicians and subordinates. But his intelligence and communication skills overrode the opinions of those preoccupied with protocol and rigid strategies. Eisenhower became our president during the 1950s and applied those special skills.
Eisenhower’s fresh way of thinking and ability to communicate were more than career advantages. They were a genuine service to the nation.
Powell did much the same thing by reforming a dysfunctional Vietnam era military into the quality force it is today. A good career move. And a good service to his country.
After retirement from the military Powell became the founding Chairman of America’s Promise—The Alliance for Youth. A group meant to mobilize people from every sector to build the character and competence of our country’s youth. Service through communicating. Through speeches and the written word.
We read, reflect, AND write to become more effective human beings. Those actions make us more than robotically motivated creatures programmed with stimulus-response software. They allow us to serve with sensitivity and moral awareness.
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