Saturday, December 9, 2017

Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War

Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War – by Peter Conradi

If you were to ask a random individual on the street to describe the relationship between Russia and the U.S. in the past 80 years, they would probably state something such as:

“Russia became an enemy with the U.S. after World War II because of communism. When communism self-destructed in 1991, Russia then became one of the “good” guys.  Lately, though, the relationship between Russia and the U.S. has seemed to have gotten worse.  Although I’m not entirely sure why.”

That person would be mostly correct. What this book does so well, is explain why the euphoria of the early 1990s deteriorated around the relationship between the superpowers, and why things have regressed since then. In other words, this book is an excellent resource for those who don’t read about world news that often, and tend to read the Sports page first when they open their newspaper.

This book was very well written and very easy to follow. It’s not a book that you “give up on” because it’s too detailed, too scholarly, or too long. The author does an outstanding job balancing how to present enough crucial material for one to digest without putting them to sleep or overwhelming them with details ad nauseum. This is one of the books that I finished in only a few days because it was so well written, interesting, and informative.

A key point when discussing foreign relations is that other countries and other cultures think and behave differently. Most of us are unaware of this. We can’t understand why, for example, when we topple a brutal dictator such as Saddam Hussein, there’s dancing and singing in the streets of Baghdad for a few days, but then things seem to go back to exactly how they were before.  So when the Cold War ended and the Communist regime was toppled in 1991, there were many in the West that thought all they needed was a few more shopping malls and trendy restaurants, and Russia would magically transform to a peaceful place that looked and acted just like the state of Vermont.

The author reminds us though, that even though Russia “lost” the Cold War, they have always been a proud country. For the United States to start dictating how they run their country, and more importantly, the relationship with subjugated neighbors such as Ukraine and Georgia, there are going to be problems.  There is a lot of focus on the relationships between the leaders of the two countries.  First, Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin. Then, Bush and Putin, followed by Obama and Medvedev (later, back to Putin). None of the leaders of the West seem to perfectly play their cards, and whatever methods are tried, it seems as though relationships between the two simply become worse.  How does one maintain a healthy relationship with a country when it has such a cruel demeanor with places such as Crimea and Syria?

Old habits die hard, and Putin and his cronies are no choirboys. We read about a lot of rigged elections, under-the-table deals, and poisoned enemies that allow the country to climb back to the top and retain its former glory.  They may not be “Communist” anymore, but the author successfully argues that the cruelty that has been there since the Revolution in 1917 hasn’t abated. It may have taken a brief sojourn, but the nothing has really changed that much since the days of well-documented infamy.

The author does reveal who he thinks actually “lost” Russia in the last few pages. I’m not sure I completely agree with him.  For something to be “lost” it must first be “owned” or “possessed” and I’m not sure the U.S., or anyone else, ever had a firm grasp on the country to begin with. We may have thought we did 25 years ago, but smarter heads (i.e. Henry Kissinger) have always told us otherwise.  We just never wanted to listen. Why listen to people tell you things aren’t that great when they feel so good?

The book does talk a bit about the Clinton-Trump presidential race. The author makes no accusations, but it’s clear that Russia would much prefer a Trump president than a Clinton one. In fact, there are several references to Clinton, as Obama’s Secretary of State, wanting her Commander and Chief to do things differently and have a firmer hand.  It’s easy to speculate that if Hillary Clinton had won the election, things would finally move in the correct path, but one would have to be mightily optimistic to hold such a position. In fact, after reading this, my sad conclusion is that anytime we want something to be better, it sometimes must, first, get worse. Sometimes much worse. We can only hope and pray that things don’t deteriorate much more in the coming years.  We should all pay attention to world news more often.

The General vs. The President

The General vs. The President by H.W. Brands

H.W. Brands The General vs. The President tells a story of an episode in history where the entire country was united behind one of the players in a political duel, yet history now looks back at the event quite differently. Several years after the fact, most could admit that they were mostly incorrect in their choice of who was right and who was wrong.

In one corner was General of the Army Douglas MacArthur – hero of World War II and magnanimous conqueror of Japan. Arrogant, cocky, and walked with a swagger with his ubiquitous sunglasses and corn-cob pipe.  In the other corner – the 34th President of the United States, Harry S. Truman.  Considered an “accident” by many. This meek, mild-mannered former hat shop manager was nominated as Roosevelt’s Vice President 5 weeks before death finally claimed FDR’s life.  Truman and MacArthur were quite the odd couple.

Unfortunately, even after the worst war in human history had finally concluded months after Truman was sworn in, the world was far from a peaceful place.  It was bad enough with Stalin and Communist Russia making unpleasant waves throughout the East.  By 1948, Mao-Tse Tung and the Red Chinese also took over the fledgling Nationalists headed by Chiang Kai-shek.  What does the leader of the free world do? Well, MacArthur has a lot of ideas. Many good, most loved, but calmer heads such as Truman’s must prevail in many instances – despite what the country in a patriotic fervor might think.  When Red China’s communist neighbor North Korea invades its counterpart in the south, some sort of action is required.

So we see and hear the bickering go back and forth between the Truman and MacArthur. Most of it is done behind each other’s back, but the desire of each seems to be that the adversary eventually gets the message.  It doesn’t help when the General repeatedly makes his views quite obvious with the press with no concern of his boss’s toes being stepped on during the process.  After Red China enters the Korean “Police Action” (after MacArthur assured his Commander and Chief that such a thing would never happen), Truman is left with no other option other than to fire MacArthur.  The headlines then roared.

So MacArthur returns home to a widely appreciative country. Crowds gather, ticker tape parades are thrown, and women swoon and faint at the sight of the 70-year-old hero.  The masses would much rather have the General as their President than their bi-spectacled docile leader, and MacArthur drops many hints at such a goal for 1952.

The mood starts to slowly change during the Senate hearings of the general. There are a few in the halls of congress that refused to get sucked up by the burst of jingoism, and after many days in the “hot seat”, the masses finally have time to digest. Unbeknownst to many in the public, the godlike MacArthur had in fact committed many gaffes during the Korean theater, and the fervor that has enraptured the nation slowly fades away.  Just like old soldiers that never die.

This book was a very concise read.  I’ve read about the events in pretty through detail in William Manchester’s “American Caesar” (about MacArthur) and David McCullough’s “Truman”, yet Brands does an excellent job educating the novice.  I’m not sure of his actual purpose for focusing on such an event in history that has already been well documented.  It could be that he felt a book was necessary that shows us how blind we can be when caught up with patriotic zeal.  Such lessons are important. There are many that say that politics has gotten worse in last few decades. I’m not entirely sure I would agree with that sentiment. The difference, I believe, is instant access to newswires via the internet and social media that seem to spread such information at an accelerated pace. Brands shows us (as he has in many of his books about famous people) that partisan politics and bickering has always existed – you just never found out about what someone said until the next day’s papers.

This book is a great tale of how one can look back on history with much clearer vision and understanding than one might be able to do when we are in the thick of the events.  MacArthur is still looked at fondly by most, yet most historians now agree that Truman wasn’t really such a bad guy, nor a bad president, after all.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Care and Feeding of Your Young Employee

The Care and Feeding of Your Young Employee – by Jamie Belinne

I have been a professional trainer and public speaker for more than 25 years. I love to use illustrations in my speeches and trainings.  I’ve used one for several years, using the movie “Titanic” as one such illustration. It was only a couple of months ago when it dawned on me – I really shouldn’t use this example anymore. “Titanic” is now older than 20 years, and many younger people in my audience have never seen it, nor even heard of it. I find myself having to make adjustments such as this on a fairly consistent basis. What’s “new” and “exciting” today seems to quickly turn into Yesterday’s news. 

These types of problems are tenfold when we talk about getting along and working well with others in the workplace. When we take the time to look around in our work environment, careful observation shows us that there are a wide variety of ages in most cases. In this book, author Jamie Belinne does a great job discussing the different generations, the different idiosyncrasies of each, and more importantly – how a manager must successfully juggle such a challenge. Her focus is on the older managers and the younger employees (note the title), but I almost wonder if the title of this book is a bit narrow. It seems to me that a younger manager who manages older employees can learn a lot from this book as well.

The nomenclature that people use for these different age groups varies. In her book, she focuses on how older managers (She calls them “Boomers” and “Generation X”) can successfully manage the younger crowd (“Generation Y” and “Generation Z”).  To hopefully clarify – Generation Y is also known as “Millennials” and Generation Z are the youngest of the young in the professional workplace – born around the turn of the century.  It’s interesting that Belinne notes that there has been a lot of emphasis on Generation Y being the “kids”, yet they really aren’t kids anymore.  So even if you think you may have a handle on what is important to Generation Y, you now need to get ready to create a brand-new slate since the younger crowd (Gen Z) will be crowding the employment train quickly in the foreseeable future – with different needs and expectations.

So the author describes many strategies, using actual case studies, on how people are different, and why people are different based on their respective age groups.  She does accurately point out that you can never pinpoint a person’s habits and personalities simply based on their age, but it’s fairly common that there are definitely trends within each of these groups. 

She also keeps her focus on the fact that companies and bosses can never prevent change, and the biggest change that companies always face is “generation gaps”. Rather than fight this change, a good company (and its managers) will embrace this change and come up with alternative strategies that work for different people. The author reminds us of just how important this is – if you can’t accommodate your younger workers’ different behaviors, they’ll simply pack up and go somewhere else. Never a good thing when trying to retain top talent.

I would almost recommend that companies use this book as a workbook. There are so many good ‘tips’ here, that it can be easy to forget many of the helpful suggestions that the author gives once you are done reading. I’m not a fan of companies making their employees (or managers) “read books” to aid them in doing their job, but I think it would be very beneficial for leaders at a company to spend maybe a week on each chapter and formulate questions, scenarios, and tips as to how to work well within the different age groups. I would also suggest that the examples and illustrations that the author gives are not unique to the workplace. Personalities within families and friends can rapidly deteriorate as well when one refuses to acknowledge key age differences among the people involved.

To be successful in today’s work environment, it’s crucial that you accept people as who they are (within limitations of course) and not try to “mold” or “assimilate” people into only one way of doing things. The author does an excellent job reminding us of this with many real-life examples.  The world of work is tough enough with competition, regulations, and negative Yelp reviews.  Why not make things slightly easier and figure out how to work well within the walls of our company?   

Yes, it can be hard and challenging, but it’s crucial that everyone adapts to this way of thinking if we want our company to survive and prosper in today’s workplace.