Making people a priority … always!

  • Published
  • By Col. John Michel
  • 319th Air Refueling Wing commander
The great philosopher Confucius was born into a world experiencing widespread social anarchy. Rival political factions sought to gain greater control in order to consolidate power and warring states made a regular habit of invading one another. Death, destruction, pain and sorrow were present everywhere as people were slaughtered by the thousands, often simply to further one leader's personal political ambitions. 

It was truly a dark time in Chinese history. 

However, born from Confucius' first-hand experience with these atrocities was a commitment to doing all he could to reinvent the social and moral order of his society. To do something to turn back the darkness that had enveloped his beloved country. To act on the reality that those choosing to create yesterday's pain did not have to control tomorrow's potential. 

Acting contrary to many of the leading philosophers and leaders of his time who believed the only way to control human behavior was to dominate it, Confucius chose otherwise. Instead, he grounded his teachings around the concept of jen: a concept which can be translated as describing "virtue, goodness, charity, or love." 

This earliest Confucian view of jen emphasized honoring relationships. Primarily those relationships between the Emperor and his court officials; parents and their children; husbands and wives and anyone else that held some measure of influence in the lives of those placed in their immediate care. Practicing jen then meant leaders were to serve those who had been entrusted to them. Yet, they were to serve not out of obligation, but because they chose to honor others more so than themselves.
It was a selfless ideal born amidst a very selfish world. 

Over the next hundred years, the concept of jen continued to evolve. Emphasis was increasingly placed on the fact that all people are created equal and any difference in wealth or societal status should not affect how people are treated. Admittedly, this was a very progressive perspective for a society that viewed their appointed leaders, the Emperors in particular, as direct descendants of the gods themselves. Nonetheless, the concept of jen continued to gain momentum to the point that it became expected that all people, especially those in positions of leadership, were to give their very best effort in caring for every human being equally. 

Re-discovering jen

Today, those of us interested in growing into second-mile leaders can also choose to make this evolved concept of jen real in our homes, workplaces, worship spaces, and communities. That is, if we are willing to act on the belief that everyone entrusted to our care should be treated with the inherent respect they deserve as fellow travelers in this journey we call life. Be it siblings, parents, children, husband and wife, workmate, or classmate, when we choose to use our influence as leaders to help others experience the same compassion, kindness, and fairness we ourselves desire, then learning to treat others as we ourselves would like to be treated no longer seems so difficult. 

I know to some this idea may sound soft and not how they are used to thinking about leadership. However, if arguably the most powerful man in the world today, the President of the United States, thinks theirs merit to the idea, than perhaps it's worth reconsidering. 

In a recent White House speech, President Barack Obama shared how he too believed there is one rule that binds all peoples together, regardless if they are leader or led. For some, he shared this rule is best captured in the words to "love thy neighbor as thyself." In other traditions it's expressed simply as, "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow." In Islam, this ideal is captured in the simple phrase, "None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself." 

So, as it turns out, the evolved concept of jen, what many of us across the world commonly refer to as "the Golden Rule," is perhaps more relevant for leaders to grasp today than it's ever been. For as the President of the United States himself reminds us, "It is an ancient rule; a simple rule; but also one of the most challenging. For it asks each of us to take some measure of responsibility for the well-being of people we may not know or worship with or agree with on every issue. Sometimes, it asks us to reconcile with bitter enemies or resolve ancient hatreds ... It requires us not only to believe, but to do -- to give something of ourselves for the benefit of others and the betterment of our world. 

It's a rule that calls us "to love one another; to understand one another; to treat with dignity and respect those with whom we share a brief moment on this Earth. 

Therefore, the next time you feel compelled to respond to those in your care in a manner that will ultimately only foster divisions, stop to think about how things might be different if you chose instead to promote an environment of unconditional acceptance. An environment that allows people to feel safe enough to be the person they are today while stretching to become the person they have the potential to become tomorrow. An environment where the value we ascribe to relationships in our most sacred spaces should be no different than those we extend to those in our work places. 

Ultimately, an environment where putting into practice an age-old idea like jen reminds us that all forms of relationship have value because it is through relationship that we collectively weave the web that is our lives. 

And it's a web we invariably learn touches everyone around us for better or worse. 

Jen: the new math of relationships 

In the end, what's most important to remember is not the philosophy or philosopher behind the particular idea, but the idea itself. For an idea like jen should simply serve to remind those of us striving to become better leaders, that when we choose to align our words, our behaviors and our actions toward others in a positive, meaningful way we seed opportunities to connect and create meaningful exchanges - exchanges that make important to us what is important to them. 

In effect, jen then is an idea that reinforces the truth that we as human beings perform better when we focus on creating opportunities to celebrate inclusiveness instead of settling for approaches that enforce exclusiveness. Recognition if you will that when we selfishly exclude others we rob them of their deep-seated desire to contribute to the collective effort at-hand. 

Thus, my desire in sharing this age-old concept of jen with you is so that in some way, big or small, you'll be reminded that the equation that nets true individual and collective excellence does not involve division or subtraction, but instead relies on addition and multiplication. 

It is, in fact, an equation that reveals virtue, goodness, charity, and love should be reflected in the sum of our relationships.

I wonder what our world would be like if more leaders today would re-discover and put this age old practice of jen into regular use? My hope is you'll have the courage to find out for yourself. 

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

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