Thursday, April 6, 2017

Calling out opportunists for our sake and theirs

Opportunists seek and demand adulation and they are addicted to power vacuums.

Opportunists do not play by the rules, the norms or the conventions of the “game”. They operate as narcissistic driven outliers. Let’s compare Wayne Gretzky’s opportunistic “being where the puck is going to be before it arrives” completely within the rules and the conventions of the game of hockey to Trump’s complete disregard of the political traditions, conventions and even the normal expectations of the constitution.

In their pursuit of power vacuums, they find such vacuums proliferating. These vacuums take many forms: failure to ‘show up,’ defaulting on legitimate responsibilities, walking away from telling the truth, especially after declaring “I have serious misgivings,” or merely repressing oneself whether in a professional or personal relationship. Relationships beset with power vacuums, because one partner simply defers to other, ultimately satisfy neither partner. One fails to show up, while the other is left wondering “where the other one really is”. Spinelessness, regardless of gender, is one of the more prominent power vacuums. Sometimes too, opportunists do “end-runs” around the legitimate measurement of their work. . In Atlanta, not that long ago, teachers in the public school system ‘rigged’ their students’ results on state-wide tests in order to pad their own resume, falling, finally on the point of their own sword, once they were “outed”.

While a limited degree of looking out for one’s self is clearly necessary in a competitive, ‘dog-eat-dog” business world. There is also competition among those vying for scholarships, bursaries, athletic awards and sales awards, and for each of these a level of seeking opportunity to demonstrate one’s talent, ability and proficiency makes sense, provided it does not do harm directly or indirectly, and certainly not willfully, to another. We have all heard of doctoral candidates who take months and even years to research and write their thesis, in the desperate hope that no one, from the far side of the world completes a clone thesis before they finish. However, to their best knowledge, neither candidate is usually consciously aware of his/her “competitor” and cannot be considered opportunistic in finishing first.

 Although opportunists seem to rush to the front of the line, and look like “drivers” and “full of initiative”, reliable and candidates for leadership, opportunists are the least appropriate occupants of executive office, where the important executive decisions are made. Opportunists, you see, are dedicated to finding and taking advantage of every opportunity for their own self-aggrandizement. They could not care less about the broad picture of the general good, the public good, the long-term interests, even the medium-term projections. They will not be around to worry about either the medium or long term; they will have imprinted their opportunistic signature, for better or worse, on the organization long before the memories of those serving as monitor to the long-term picture.

The corporate world is literally flooded with opportunists. Their modus operandi, it seems, has become holy grail for all others seeking to fulfil their shoes, upon their departure in retirement, or “advancement”…or death or long-term disability. Politicians, as an example, measure their life-span in seconds and minutes, often dependent on a headline, a vote, a resurrected memo, email, tweet or a U-Tube post. For every opportunist working in public service, there is an army of dark opportunists seeking and deploying ways to perform surgical and clinical (and recently anonymous) character dismemberment on the public servant.

Those visiting art galleries, especially the casual observers, focuses primarily on the “positive spaces on the canvas, where the light shines, the colours and shapes draw the eyes in, without taking as much notice of the ‘negative spaces’ where the shadows, or the reflections or the background taken together provide much of the impression of the piece. Similarly, orchestral and concert performances, for many, comprise the dramatic flourishes, the memorable melodies, the unique riffs in rhythm, while letting the pianissimo’s and the more complicated harmonies recede into the background of their consciousness, and there by into their memory of the experience.

Similarly, our public discussions, our news reports, and much of our commentary focuses on the “positive” evidence, thereby allowing little to no space/time/focus on the things not done, not said, or said in such a way as to be literally unobservable to the larger public. Statements made to burnish the reputation of those opportunists in power flow like raindrops in a storm from the printers and the emails of those serving as message-spinners for their bosses. Millions of dollars, in government, for example, are dedicated to the generation of torrents of “positive” press releases, all of them calculated to put the character from “central casting” (the star, the politician, the investment broker, the ‘firm,’ the leader) in the best possible light. 

So dominant is this public relations machine that rarely if ever do we hear a leader, a public figure say, “This mistake is on me!” (Just this week, the coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Mike Babcock did just that on his mis-handling of a compound and complex penalty killing situation.

And yet, Babcock’s entry into the “negative space” of his profession demonstrates both an integrity and a degree of self-confidence that has become extremely rare in the current culture. His players, his bosses (Manager and President) all can take heart in his acknowledgement of his need to grow, to learn and to ‘do better’ as he would put it. None of us is exempt from that requirement, not imposed by a heavy handed system, but rather generated from within, as a matter of self-respect and self-acceptance, independent of the kind of accolades that come exclusively from ‘the audience(s)’ in our lives.

Recently in talking with a hockey coach of a girls’ team (ages 9-10), I heard his strong endorsement of telling his players how they had to improve, rejecting the latest mantra that “everything you are doing is great” as the best teaching practice. Helping kids feel more confident need not exclude honest criticism and suggestions on how to do better. And yet, there is considerable evidence that at least one whole generation in the United States has been fed a steady diet of cheer-leading from their teachers and coaches, without acquiring the necessary complex and difficult skills in subjects like mathematics and science. In Atlanta, in the recent past, teachers in the public school system ‘rigged’ their students’ results on state-wide tests in order to pad their own resume, falling, finally on the point of their own sword, once they were “outed”.

 Falling into this trap, as the one seeking to become prime minister, Justin Trudeau, fed his campaign audiences a steady diet of ‘sunny ways’ exaggerate promises easily recognized as unlikely of fulfillment, and along with his continuing rock-star reputation on the international stage, his government is suffering from fatigue and delayed commitments or actual the inevitable confluence of events beyond its control.
And, from this desk, it seems as if the opportunists currently offering their names for public service have drunk the kool-aid of flattery, and obsequious and opportunistic promises that are dedicated primarily to their own career advancement. And all of this is, to put it bluntly, insulting to the rest of us.

Are we nothing more than little children desperately seeking and demanding affirmation, false promises and exaggerated visions of ‘never-never land’ in order to secure our few minutes of casting a ballot? Are we so easily duped that we do not see, or do not wish to see, the ‘negative spaces’ in every public figures’ character landscape? Has our gullibility, (or perhaps our desperation) reached such a profound level that like the drug and alcohol addicts whose lives have run off the rails of self-management and control, made us blind and/or powerless to rise above the sugar-coated, fast-food of instant gratifications?

Honesty takes guts, even among the closest of associates, especially among close associates whose respect we all desire, if not need, in order to feel and believe that we “belong”. And “belonging” for many comes at a very high price. No one, not the COO, the CEO, the CFO, the President, the principal, the headmaster, the priest, even the Pope is without ‘negative spaces’. Similarly, there is not a signal organization that is without flaws. And we are long past a shared realization and acceptance of that deep and inescapable reality. Why then do we continue to permit others to feed us bullshit, that is calculated to serve the others’ goals, purposes and aggrandizement at our expense? And we gobble it like starved animals, when we are a long-way from starving!

There is an old adage, “this is no way to run a railway” that came out of another era. And today, that aphorism springs to mind as we all watch generations of people consume things we don’t need, eat food that does not nourish us, find friends who do not tell us the truth, go places that do not fulfil our minimal expectations, indulge in thoughts that are not based in anything close to a shared reality, send tweets and facebook messages that attempt to demean the other for our immediate power needs, play champion fighter as the one reputable model of masculinity (both men and women does this), and then cower in the face of real criticism and refuse to accept responsibility (it’s not on me!)….

And when we look up? (or down? or across?) at the headlines that confront us every morning, as we witness the same kind of cultural abdication, we have to wonder if Edward VIII has become the role model for our time. Abdication of legitimate political responsibility for truth telling, for truth acknowledging, for confronting truth to power, no matter in what circumstances (and this includes men confronting women, as well as the reverse when appropriate) is a lesson more important to be embedded in our school curricula as well as our parenting manuals as the recent announcement of financial management skills, if not more important!

Shiny self-portraits, in themselves, are another form of avoidance of reality, denial of the dark, negative spaces in our psyches, our biographies, and our shared futures. So tainted, for example, have letters of reference and resumes become, that many hiring agents pay them scant attention, preferring a full “dig” into the biography of the applicant.

There has, for centuries, been a search for and an honouring of authenticity, the kind of self-confidence and self-respect that prompts an individual to look carefully and critically at his/her own motives, words, actions and interactions.

 Questions like:

 “Why do I seek to get revenge on that person?” require a close scrutiny.


 “ Why did that  student bring the pail of water to the interviews for the co-op program and pour the water on his competitors? (a true story from a Canadian university!) demand a full reflection about the nature of the competition, by both the candidates and the companies offering the work placement.

“Why was that candidate permitted to lie about the reputation of his opponent, with impunity?” point to a penetrating questioning of the kind of culture generates such an act.

“When does dissembling, distracting and lying to wriggle out of tight spots continue to work for that person?” demand a communal response that reflects individual and group acknowledgement of responsibility and accountability.


We can not afford to give a free ticket and a blank cheque to the opportunists who seek to take power away from both our history, conventions, protocols and even our laws. And our primary focus on the “positive” statements, the public relations gestures, the melodies and the highlights, while minimizing or ignoring, or denying those negative spaces on every canvas of every human being, will continue to prop up those least worthy of our public confidence and respect. 

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