The Need for an Enemy

Today, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, is a time for many to reflect on the deeper issues of life. I’m no different.

Today I’m also drawn to ponder a personal crisis that struck our family almost five years ago: the suicide of our son. And the reason why these are related is a lesson in leadership.

Many who were alive on September 11, 2001 wax poetic on how instantly it galvanized the country. Within minutes we were all watching the events on TV. Within hours we all applauded as the Congress came together for a unanimous response. Within days, virtually everyone had a flag or sticker on their car. What had been a fairly divided country, pulled together in amazing fashion. It filled your heart and convinced you that we could, as a unified country, do anything.

For those not alive then, but who have lived the last 18 months, such sentiments seem absurd. In the face of a raging pandemic the country is a warring cesspool of hatred. Over 220 times as many Americans have died from COVID as died on 9/11, yet the very idea of pulling together to conquer it is quite literally tearing the country apart.

There is no specific person to be angry with. We seem to have turned on each other.

Aside from loathsome, naked politics, a crucial difference is the nature of the threat. On 9/11 there was an enemy, the events were caused by some specific people, and the country seethed with the words of George W. Bush, “we will hunt you down.” In the COVID crisis, the enemy is invisible, unseen, and moves mysteriously among us seeming to strike at will. There is no specific person to be angry with. No enemy to loathe or threaten. We seem to have turned on each other.

This is similar to the feelings our family felt after the suicide of our son. His depression had killed him, a similarly invisible enemy with vague cause and even less obvious treatment. There was no disease to get angry at, no fund raiser or march to attend, no enemy to rail at. Just emptiness and loss. It took all our power and a lot of support not to turn on ourselves or each other.

Like our country, our family struggled without the clarity of a foe. We need, it seems, an enemy.

This is a lesson for leaders. It’s hard to build a team and garner support for a mission that points to a vague target. You can’t just tell everyone, “we’re going to go out there and be great!” They need something clear, defined, and specific for a goal.

Weaker leaders often choose an enemy. They point to the competition and talk about crushing them. They mock, deride, and taunt their foe. The mere mention of their name is as red meat before a cur. Many go so far as to make effigies and hold elaborate shows of crushing their enemy, to the cheers of all.

This is the easy way. As we’ve seen in the country these last few years, fear, anger, and frothing at the mouth are easy to stoke. They are quick to spread, and easy to fuel. They are, however, hard to maintain. The negative saps life and is exhausting. It requires ever more rabid anger, ever more outrage for the same effect. Eventually people collapse from exhaustion. Or the realization that the hyperbole was manufactured.

The more challenging, and yet more durable, approach is to make the goal less of an enemy and more of a target. To point the team toward a goal, no less specific, direct, and identifiable as an enemy. But without all the blood lust and anger. An optimistic target that paints a vision that people can rally behind without the need for an enemy.

You’re less like the dog that has finally caught the car, and more like the marathoner winning the gold.

To be clear, this takes more work. The case is harder to build. Selling something positive is far harder than selling to the baser instincts. But the reward is greater. Not only do you get to sleep at night as the leader, but the cause is always more genuine, the effects longer lasting.

And when the goal is eventually reached, the success is far sweeter. You’re less like the dog that has finally caught the car, and more like the marathoner winning the gold.

Setting the next goal will also be easier. The team will be less exhausted, and far less skeptical than they would be of a new manufactured foe. You can simply applaud the success and then move on to the next, perhaps bolder adventure.

So in this time of reflection, yes, seek out a target for your team. Be clear, specific, and measurable in your focus. But let the lesser leaders flail at the enemies. You can be better than that, your team can do much more than that.