The Fog

October 2, 2020

Russ Ewell

Listen to the podcast episode based on this article entitled “The 4 D’s Of Emotionalism.

Science, basketball, and politics (in that order) have been passions of mine since my earliest years. This week, all of them were on display. 

Development of the coronavirus vaccine is making substantial progress, with some saying it could be made widely available as early as March. The NBA Championship series is in full effect, with two of my favorite franchises battling it out for supremacy. And of course, the unpleasant yet unavoidable presidential election is dominating discussions around tables across the country. 

For our purposes, the current political environment provides us with a real-time lesson in leadership. So bear with me—this is not meant to be a political post. 

After only a couple of days where the presidential debates were like a vortex sucking all the air out of the news cycle, news broke that President Trump and the First Lady tested positive for the coronavirus. This led to speculation about many things, including who else might test positive among the senior leadership. If the White House leadership were to be depleted, it could lead to invoking the 25th Amendment.

Before we allow ourselves to be sucked into a speculative spiral, we must offer our thoughts and prayers to the first family as well as all who might be affected. Hopefully, few will test positive, all symptoms will be mild or non-existent, and there will be no loss of life.

The 25th Amendment answers the question of what to do should a president become unable to do their job. This is a complex issue explained in the television series The West Wing, where “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen” parts 1 and 2 we learn papers have to be signed, confusion can ensue, and chaos can reign.

What happens if the 25th Amendment must be invoked? 

Here is the line of succession, which will reveal the possibility of a leadership crisis, if, say, the democrat Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi had to serve as president (at the time of writing, Vice President Pence has tested negative):

  1. Vice President Pence
  2. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi
  3. Chuck Grassley, President Pro Tempore of the Senate
  4. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
  5. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin

Why should these highly speculative leadership issues matter? Because here, in real-time, we are watching and experiencing what Carl Von Clauswitz, one of the foremost military thinkers in history, called “The Fog”:

Lastly, the great uncertainty of all data in War is a peculiar difficulty, because all action must, to a certain extent, be planned in a mere twilight, which in addition not unfrequently—like the effect of a fog or moonshine—gives to things exaggerated dimensions and an unnatural appearance.

Carl Von Clauswitz, On War

Clauswitz used the “fog effect” to describe the uncontrollable aspects of war. He taught military leaders that the one thing they could count on in war is that at some point, something beyond their control would affect a change to their best-laid plans. In time, students of Clauswitz coined a phrase called “The Fog of War” to describe this condition.

As a country, we are currently experiencing “The Fog of War,” and to one extent or another, our families, companies, schools, and communities are as well. We are in a war against the coronavirus, climate change, racism, and economic upheaval, with each one contributing to our already deep political divisions.

How we navigate these difficult times will determine much about the future of our families, companies, schools, and communities. What can we do, and why do we matter?  

Let me explain by talking about two things: “The Fog” and “The 4 D’s.”

Life Fog

When you’re boating in fog, your perception of the world around you changes dramatically. Basic instincts don’t work well, if at all. Your normal sources of information about what’s around you become virtually useless, and it’s easy to grow confused and disoriented.

Tom Neale, BoatU.S.

Neale helps us understand the dangers of sailing in atmospheric fog. Atmospheric fog disorients; it changes our perception of the world. 

According to British Historian Tim Maltin, this may have been the reason for the sinking of the Titanic. He explains how the Titanic, which was thought to be unsinkable, ended up sinking due to an optical phenomenon—a super-refraction, a bending of light that causes miraging.

“Life Fog” disorients in the same way. Overwhelmed by crisis after crisis, we as people and leaders can have our perceptions distorted. Before we know it, we are off course, lost in a sea of spiritual and emotional disruption, which can cause us to make rash decisions capable of sinking our lives.

There is a clear difference between leaders who successfully navigate challenging times and those who fail. 

Think about Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler. Churchill experienced the disappointment of leaving Harrow and attending military school because his parents did not think he was university material. Hitler, who was convinced he was destined to become a successful, if not great artist, experienced disappointment when he failed to gain admittance to art school.

Churchill would respond to his disappointment with resilience, while Hitler responded to a similar disappointment with resentment. Reading history, one can look to the disparity between Churchill and Hitler as an example of the difference between leaders who successfully navigate the fog of life and those who cannot. Those who are successful like Churchill possess two navigational tools: a spiritual core and emotional strength.

The Spiritual Core

Every reflective person sooner or later faces certain questions: What is the purpose of my life? How do I find a moral compass so I can tell right from wrong? What should I do day by day to feel fulfillment and deep joy?

David Brooks, What Is Your Purpose?

Why does one person or leader sink in the fog while another succeeds? My personal experience with sinking versus success and my study of great leaders and organizations have taught me that we will become lost in the spiritual fog of purposelessness without a spiritual core.

In times of crisis, our anchor is the answers we give to the questions asked by David Brooks: “What is the purpose of my life? How do I find a moral compass so I can tell right from wrong? What should I do day by day to feel fulfillment and deep joy?”

During these days, months, and potentially years of upheaval, the only way for us and our leaders to succeed is to find our spiritual core, which provides the accurate compass necessary to navigate the turbulent waters of life amid thick fog.

Emotional Strength

The spiritual core is virtually useless without emotional strength. Simply knowing who we are and what we are about is meaningless unless we can actually live it out, and to do so, we must have the emotional strength to handle what I call the “4 D’s of Emotionalism.”  

Emotionalism is one of my core weaknesses. The 4 D’s that I experience nearly every day are disorientation, distraction, and disruption, all of which will derail our lives if left unaddressed. They create an emotional fog distorting perceptions of reality and leading us to make terrible decisions.

Fortunately, the years have taught me how to overcome my emotionalism, and though I am a work in progress, this work has been deep. Take a look at this video, which will be better than words for explaining how to handle the 4 D’s.

The Leadership Fog

Beside the desk in my study as I write this is a letter from Aldous Huxley written from Deronda Drive in Los Angeles in November 1959, which states, “That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of the lessons that history has to teach us.”

Andrew Roberts, Leadership in War

Each one of us stands at a crossroads in this tumultuous year of 2020. We can acknowledge “The Fog,” develop a spiritual core and learn to successfully manage the 4 D’s with emotional strength, or we can insist on navigating the turbulent waters of life superficially, with basic instincts that simply don’t work.

Robert McNamara, one of the central architects of the Vietnam War, speaks about “The Fog” from the pages of history, teaching lessons we can learn or ignore at our own peril. He reflects on his mistakes and those of others in a documentary called “The Fog of War.” It is a gripping account of how easy it is to become disoriented, distracted, disrupted, and derailed. 

His honesty is painful to listen to because one can only think how much destruction, devastation, and loss of life could have been avoided if those in leadership could have seen at the time that they were in the grip of “The Fog of War.”

For me, McNamara’s lessons are instructive in pointing out that when lacking the emotional strength to hold on to and live out their spiritual core, even the brilliant can become lost, plunging themselves and others into unforgiving crisis and tragedy. 

I am grateful for the lessons of history. My hope is leaders around the world will look at history, acknowledge “The Fog,” find their spiritual core, develop their emotional strength, and, together with us, make our future brighter than our present.

My leadership notebook

The following are my handwritten notes illustrating my thoughts and ideas still in development. I’d like to give you a window into my thought process each week, in hopes that it will inspire you to unleash your own creativity and embrace imperfection.