Hitmen in our midst

  • Published
  • By Col. John Michel
  • 319th Air Refueling Wing commander
A thousand years ago, in the early part of the 11th century, a rebellious Shiite Muslim sect called the Nizari seized control of a mountaintop castle in Teheran, the capital of modern day Iran. This was the first in what would turn into a series of attacks conducted against political leaders of the Islamic world by this group. Using their weapon of choice, the dagger, these men used deceptive tactics to murder princes, scholars, crusaders and anyone else they felt could get in the way of their agenda. While their loyalty to others could never be ensured, their dedication to achieving their own selfish goals was unquestioned.

The founder of this group was Hassan-I-Sabbah, a man who epitomized extremism and even ordered the death of his own son for drinking wine. This group of dangerous killers was well-known for having fickle allegiances, executing crusaders at one moment, and then offering their services for hire to carry out execution attempts on behalf of the crusaders the next.

Clearly, the only true loyalty these men had was to their own interests.

In many respects, these dangerous men were a precursor to the terrorist factions such as Al-Qaeda we are all too familiar with today. They were ruthless men who specialized in killing anyone who did not share in their beliefs or accept their view of the world.

For almost 150 years, the power of this band of radicals grew, that is, until Genghis Khan's grandson, Hulagu, was able to capture their principle mountain stronghold and break their reign of terror. However, the dark legacy of this band of professional "hit" men did not diminish as crusaders returned to the western world with tales of their unpredictable adversary's exploits, evoking fear and terror at the very mention of their chosen name: The Assassins. 

Organizational assassins

Today, the word assassin is familiar to most of us. However, we must realize that assassins are no longer limited to wayward sects, radical ideologies, or even Hollywood movies. The truth is they are found all around us; at work in many of our organizations.

Like the rebellious sect of old, the allegiance of organizational assassins is also flexible. They too often shift their loyalty to the individual or group who helps them promote their own agenda over that of the team. Despite using different weapons and tactics, organizational assassins of today are every bit as deadly as their counterparts were over a millennium ago. For although they no longer use daggers to achieve their objectives, they do employ something equally powerful: hateful words, deception, intimidation and manipulation.

Hateful words are the weapons of animosity, anger, and malice we express towards a person, group or object. They are weapons in the sense that they are the instruments of overt action that seeks to wound another psychologically and emotionally. You may be familiar with the term "character assassination," where these weapons and tactics are used to try and "kill" another's reputation. In many cases, these selfish attacks can be fatal to careers, relationships and self-esteem and contribute to creating an environment where trust and mutual respect are all but absent.

Deception is a particularly hurtful weapon of the organizational assassin as it is used to convince others to believe something that is either partially true or worse, an outright lie. In warfare, the use of deception to gain advantage over one's adversary has existed since the Mycenaean Greek siege of Troy in the 12th century B.C. when the Spartans used the now famous Trojan horse to trick their enemy and gain access to the formerly impenetrable city. In much the same way, employing deception in our workplaces seeks to intentionally mislead others in order to gain some unexpected or unfair advantage over them.

The selfish weapons of intimidation and manipulation 

Intimidation is often used by organizational assassins to get others to do something through fear. It can be employed consciously or unconsciously and many people who use this weapon do so to evoke anger, annoyance or alarm in others so they can coerce them to adopt the organizational assassin's self-serving motives. Intimidation is bad for business as it silences debate, encourages questionable practices to go undetected and allows mistakes and mismanagement to flourish in an environment where intimidated staff members choose to focus on their personal survival rather than on what's best for the company. 

Last, but certainly not least, manipulation is a subtle, but very dangerous weapon that seeks to control or influence circumstances in a manner which intentionally places one person's desires ahead of what's best for the group. What's important to remember is a manipulative relationship is one-sided and unbalanced, focusing on advancing the goals of the manipulator at the expense of the person being manipulated. Hence, manipulation is simply another way that organizational assassins choose to selfishly promote themselves over those around them. 

So, no matter how you cut it, hateful words, deception, intimidation and manipulation don't help organizations grow stronger. In fact, they only make them weaker as they make building trust impossible. And as we all know, without trust, relationships wilt and organizations crumble. 

Trust is the key to success 

The act of trust is the way we join ourselves to the sources of what we need to have a productive, satisfying life. Since we are finite and limited human beings, we have to get what we need from outside ourselves. From the beginning of our journey on this earth, we quickly learn we grow to the extent that we can trust and receive the things we need. Be it the trust of a parent, friend, teacher, co-worker or sibling, it takes other people believing in us and our believing in them to provide what we need to stretch and grow closer to our fullest potential.
In their insightful book, Building Trust: In Business, Politics, Relationships, and Life, Robert C. Solomon and Fernando Flores confirm how trust is the essential precondition upon which all real success depends. They describe trust as an action, and, in particular, a commitment. As all of our relationships are based on trust, to be successful one must make a commitment to actively cultivate dignity, authenticity, integrity, accountability and sincerity in all our interactions. Only then can we begin to effectively communicate our willingness to connect with others in a manner that reinforces we can be trusted in both word and deed.
In sum, it is trust, in ourselves and in others, that enables us to move beyond where we are today toward the person we are capable of becoming tomorrow. It is trust that seeds an environment for dynamic individual and organizational growth to occur.
An environment that is free of organizational assassins.
Lay down the dagger yourselves

So, does anything in this story ring true for you? Do you know any organizational assassins? Might you in any way have enabled, encouraged or assisted them when they set out to pursue their personal agenda over that of the team's? Or worse, have you yourself used the dagger of hateful words, deception, intimidation or manipulation to promote yourself over your teammates? If you have, rest assured you're not alone. But what's important today is not what you've chosen to do in the past, but what you will choose to do in the present.

If you are truly committed to being the teammate you can be and your colleagues deserve to see, you must lay the dagger down once and for all. For only then can you share one of your greatest gifts, your undivided loyalty, with those who deserve it the most. Those who call you spouse, parent, child, business associate, worship partner, friend, wingman.
Only then are you able to build the widespread trust with those in your care that will eliminate an assassin's ability to divide, derail and destroy.
Only then can you begin to create an environment where a mutually shared commitment to dignity, authenticity, integrity, accountability, and sincerity can flourish and grow.
So again, the choice rests with you. Who will you support when the time comes -- the assassin or your team?

Choose wisely, for your choice communicates volumes about your willingness to do all you can to free those in your care from the threats posed by organizational assassins.

Not because you have to, but because you choose to.

Simply because that's what second-mile leaders do!