Over time nations or large organizations like an Army, take one of two evolutionary routes: continue to adapt with changing environmental conditions in order to sustain its core beliefs, or become complacent resting on one’s laurels. If it is the latter it is because its very success has led to its isolation to a changing environment. Choosing the hard right over the easy wrong can dominate. Decisions based on facts and assumptions that led to success become dated. In turn the organization or nation should demand that its leaders conduct critical analysis in order to propose courses of action to stay on course.[i]
The right course of action may force leaders to make hard choices, in turn asking its members to change their accepted habits and even make sacrifices. Facing this realization, the other retort to the demands of the environment by those in power, and the citizens at large is the acceptance of mental security by doing nothing, keeping things as they are while pretending to do something through colorful rhetoric and complicated power point presentations. It is a substitution to accepting and attempting to adapt the current and positive way of life to the unknown problems the future may bring. In order to justify doing nothing or making hard choices a culture adapts the “cheerleading effect.”
The “cheerleading effect” is where the only accepted message is a positive one. Everyone in a culture that accepts cheerleading wants to feel great; the party to go on, even after everyone has forgotten what the celebration was for. It becomes an endorsement of current accepted beliefs or policies, and over time, it even transforms history into one-sided views that become traditions and myths that in turn supports the current accepted message.
Cheerleaders are motivators and entertainers. Cheerleaders are also attractive. At football games their primary duty is to try to get the crowd involved in the game, particularly in home games where crowed noise can be used as the “12th player.” Hopefully, this motivates their team, and if crowd noise is loud enough, it makes it hard for the visiting team to call or change plays and hear the snap count.
Cheer leaders also provide entertainment. They are athletically fit and do numerous acrobatic stunts to keep people motivated during down times when their team is behind. Even in the direst moments of a losing contest, cheerleaders try to convince people that through some miracle, their team is going to win. Only after the loss in a big game do you ever see cheerleaders show signs of despair. When cheerleading is used by an organization to undermine and block change, then it is not used to motivate, but to lie and eventually destroy trust in the organization by its members.
“Cheerleading effect” becomes a cultural norm as it accompanies and justifies complacency. It is particularly evident in democracies where the nation periodically elects new leaders or endorses current leaders by allowing them another term in office. In turn the politicians promise to do several things to take care of their followers. To the individual cheerleading provides security, even though in terms of time it may eventually lead to the demise of the culture. Another aspect of the U.S. culture that supports the “cheerleading effect” is our focus on the individual.
Professions also have “cheerleaders.” They are the members that keep the profession up beat and retain the faith in the doctrine of the organization. This is especially needed in bad times, or when senior members of the profession try to sell ideas that may be seen as unpopular with the rank and file. Most of the time those that are cheerleading are also the ones that have benefited the most by how the profession works, especially in terms of how to be successful. Thus, slowly over time “cheer-leading” receives a place in the upper most part of the profession. Today, “cheer-leading” is enhanced with the use of video technology. While “cheer-leading” is mostly entertainment at athletic events, it becomes a dangerous phenomenon when it inflicts and forces members to contradict the proven values of the profession.
Compliancy in an Army is very dangerous, especially if successes drive an Army, and its larger society, into a mindset that moves beyond mere compliancy. There is a chance that the “cheer-leading” used to drum up support for a war or mission becomes the truth if that particular event was successful. At this point everyone, but particularly decision-makers start to believe that a “perfect” model has been found and applicable for any task. Any debate or argument is seen as disloyalty.
Cultures even evolve a system of incentives that only award behavior that is seen as favorable in maintaining the status-quo. For whatever reasons, everyone gets caught up to do whatever it takes to keep the victory celebration going. Over time “committing the truth” is not an accepted norm if it contradicts positive themes. Shakespeare shows an extreme example of what happens to a culture in the play Coriolanus when the central character is not allowed to point out problems because the people are only used to good news.[ii]
Coriolanus tries to argue with other Roman Senators regarding telling the truth about major issues they must fix. In turn the Senators try to convince him not to tell the Roman people the truth despite. Coriolanus replies by pointing out the dangers in the contradiction in what he has been taught to do as a leader, which is to identify problems, then recommend a solution. Still he fails to convince the Senators despite his pleas of the dangers of doing what has become an accepted norm-lie,
No, take more: What may be sworn by, both divine and human, Seal what I end withal! This double worship, Where one part does disdain with cause, the other Insult without all reason, where gentry, title, wisdom, Cannot conclude but by the yea and no Of general ignorance,–it must omit Real necessities, and give way the while To unstable slightness: purpose so barr’d it follows Nothing is done to purpose. Therefore, beseech you,– You that will be less fearful than discreet, That love the fundamental part of state More than you doubt the change on’t, that prefer A noble life before a long, and wish To jump a body with a dangerous physic That’s sure of death without it, at once pluck out The multitudinous tongue; let them not lick The sweet which is their poison: your dishonour Mangles true judgment and bereaves the state Of that integrity which should become’t, Not having the power to do the good it would, For the in which doth control’t [iii]
Shakespeare uses the play Coriolanus to demonstrate, to an extreme, the choices those who “commit truth” have when their display of moral courage is confronted and punished. As most members of the profession unknowingly accept the “easy wrong over the hard right,” they find comfort in “cheer-leading.” They do not realize that their security may only be short-lived while the going is good. Instead the majority move to protect the organization’s “cheer-leading” without question believing that nothing will ever change. They begin to do what it takes to protect their sanctuary. They label and drive away those who “commit the truth.”
Labeled by such terms as “malcontent,” “rebel rouser,” or even extreme nouns like “zealot” truth tellers have two choices. They can comply and cave in morally, or they quit or resign from the profession. In order to maintain their pride and uphold their character, they can still fight the organization from the outside (where they normally have less impact) or go do something else all together. Over the long term, driving those “who commit the truth” drives professions to look more and more inward versus outward at the adapting to the changes in the environment in which they exist. Cheerleading would not by itself be dangerous phenomena when the culture maintains a values system, but when tied to society’s new definition of success, it begins in assisting in the deterioration of the state.
[i] Karl E. Weick and Kathleen M. Sutcliffe, Managing the Unexpected, (Danvars, MI: Jossey-Bass, 2001), p. 3-8.
[ii] I want to again thank Lieutenant Colonel (USA ret.) Allen Gill, who was my last boss at Georgetown Army ROTC, as well as taught English Literature at the United States Military Academy to his insights to the lessons from Shakespeare and particularly those offered in Coriolanus.
[iii] William Shakespeare, Shakespeare, Select Plays, Coriolanus, edited by William Wright, (Oxford University Press, 1891), p 141.