The Best Advice and Experience May Come from Wildly Different Sources

My Life Has Run That Course. Allow Me to Share Two Different But Shared Paths

What Skills and Mindset are Important in Life?

How about that for a “simple question” to begin this with?  Might as well go big and aim for the core issues, I think. Life demands a lot of all of us – some more than others, but all of us at one time or another. The list of important and desirable traits and approaches is long, but two seem to me to be pretty near the top of the list in a modern, tumultuous world.  These are:

  • Practicing Critical Thinking (most of all on yourself).
  • Working with Diverse Viewpoints and Advocates

I will quickly volunteer that I have shortcomings in both areas at any given time. At least I recognize their importance and I do practice both with a modicum of consistency. I have been fortunate enough to have a range of leadership positions and to have called upon these two elements literally around the world.

So, I get the importance and I work at both diligently. The interesting part is that I learned the value and many of the skills needed to walk these paths from two sources that many people could not imagine having anything in common at all (and that would be a wrong conclusion, by the way): the US Army and Unitarian Universalism. Allow me to share the story with you.

The US Army

I had the indescribable honor and privilege of serving in the Army for 30 years. As we have gone to an all-volunteer force, this is an experience shared by comparatively few of my fellow Americans. I very much favor a volunteer force for lots of reasons we can discuss at another time, although I like the idea of a period of national service in various forms as a good and useful thing. Perhaps we will talk about that later as well.

I have the perception that most people think the Army runs on rank. People give orders, people obey orders. While that is true as far as it goes, it only works on a foundation of leaders doing some important things before issuing those orders. The system works, for the most part, because it is based on mutual respect and trust.

Soldiers trust their leaders to do the right thing by them, to get the mission accomplished while doing everything possible to protect and nurture those under their command. Absent that earned trust, you get a mess like the Russian Army in Ukraine. In the end, the mission can still get done, but at terrible cost and with a constant under current of sabotage and resistance.

Two Guideposts

I always thought that part of my obligation as a leader was to apply critical thinking to the information and orders I received before issuing my own directives. Does this make sense? Do we know what is uncertain and what the risks look like? Might there be a better approach to consider?

The Army taught me that such pre-action inquiry was a part of my obligations to my soldiers, and the best commanders welcomed such inputs, even such challenges. They carried the same approach in their work before sending me their orders. The operating assumption was that an error or oversight was always possible, and we were expected to look for them.

On the matter of diversity, two short observations. One is that the Army is in many ways a reflection of the society from which it is drawn. During my time on active duty, the institution worked hard to honor diversity and representation, especially in promotions. As an institution, we often fell short, but surely not for lack of trying. We understood soldiers needed to see leaders that looked like them – all of them. Very much still a work in progress.

Two, a key challenge for any leader is to mentor and bring out the best in subordinate leaders. The very best officers and NCOs I knew did this by recognizing everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. Those good leaders tailored their approach to each subordinate leader to bring out their best and to grow them. One size did not fit all.

Not a bad set of approaches to life in general, it seems to me.

Unitarian Universalism

 I have been a Unitarian Universalist (UU) since I was a teenager. The first time I encountered it, I knew I had found something that would be important throughout life, something that rang true. It made sense, did not require a blind faith to a long list of doctrinal dictates, did not have much of a hierarchy, and welcomed diversity with a passion.

UUs are a small group. Most people don’t know anything about them and those that do know something about them are often a bit mystified. Most UU congregations have within their ranks christians (with a small “c”, atheists and humanists, Buddhists, pagans, and others who are just UUs – that is enough for them. The casual observer may logically ask, how all that could be a community of any kind, with everyone believing different things. The answer is what makes the movement important.

First, as a community, we are at peace with different beliefs. If you are a UU, the expectation is that you are willing to be in community with others who are different, are willing to explain what your beliefs are and why and are OK with some critical thinking to quiz others and to be quizzed. I often joke that if you can’t get into a good argument (emphasis on good – as in curious and respectful) among UUs, I don’t know where you could find such discussions.

Second, we (if I may speak for others) care less about what you believe than what those beliefs call you to do to make the world a better place and to work with others in doing so. We are all works in progress. We need not believe alike or even think alike in many ways to work together for the shared values and outcomes we seek.

Not Your Standard Religion

So, this is a movement (a term I find more comfortable than religion) that recognizes life is a journey of learning, that we should quiz ourselves and each other, and all that means being amid diversity is valued.

There have been times, lots of them over the years, in which I find the UU movement too introspective, too process oriented, too self-critical. I wish it was a broader, larger movement. Still, the pillars of solid thinking, of saying that here both your heart and your head are welcome, that we enjoy quizzing each other on questions large and small, and that we have much to learn from others who are different from us – all that continues to earn my admiration.

There You Are

Well, now you know of two of my pillars. One highly organized, naturally conservative, mission focused. The other the epitome of loose organization, highly liberal, on more of a quest than a mission. They are highly different from each other, yet complimentary in what they offer. I feel fortunate to have found them both.

Repeat after me: Think Critically, Seek Diversity. Keep on repeating that and we will all be better for it.

           Bill Clontz

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2 replies to The Best Advice and Experience May Come from Wildly Different Sources

  1. I too wish that the UUA could make itself a bigger movement, welcoming a diverse population.

  2. Some thoughts we don’t often consider. Thanks for the insight.

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