Leadership and Adversity – Balancing of Justice and Forgiveness

I interviewed Major General Sid Shachnow (US Army Retired), the former head of all US Army Special Forces, as one of the accomplished leader / participants for my Gonzaga University Doctoral dissertation which was titled, "Adversity and Obstacles in the Shaping and Development of Prominent Leaders: A hermeneutic phenomenological inquiry. " I was honored and humbled to have my Leadership and Adversity research published in 2008, "Leadership and Adversity: The Shaping of Prominent Leaders."

Sid (his birth name was "Schaja") was thrown in the Nazi concentration camp at Kovno, Lithuania at age 7, just after they killed his aunt and uncle by burning them alive in their home. He escaped the concentration camp at age 10. He hid out in a partially destroyed building until WWII was over. His mother escaped the Nazi concentration camp at the end of the war and she then found and rescue him. Then they needed to escape the Russians in Lithuania, so he and his mother (who also escaped the Nazi's Kovno concentration camp) then escaped from Lithuania to the American controlled portion of Germany.

He put the "hell" he had lived through in the Nazi Prison Camp and in Europe behind him and looked to the future. Here in America he found freedom and opportunity. He went from an 18 year old immigrant Private in the US Army all the way up to a two star General.

Major General Sid Shachnow was generous and gracious in inviting me, a total stranger, to meet with him in his home to discuss his life of journey and his various experiences in becoming a leader. I found him to be quite humble and not the least bit arrogant. Sid shared his "servant-leader" type philosophies and his growth as a young leader. He told this story of how the leader-follower relationship in "Special Forces" worked effectively:

In Special Forces, participatory leadership is very very critical, because it's a small organization and before you can become a good leader you have to be a good follower. In Special Forces, since the skills are so fragmented, there's a guy that knows communication electronics, and another guy that knows all there is to know about demolitions and engineering, and then there's another fellow who's in intelligence, and so, these things are so fragmented and specialized, that you have to depend on them for their expertise. So often what you have to do, you have to step aside, and let them become the leader. And you become the follower because they have the technical skill to do what you're doing. So we're going to blow a bridge, the demolition man is going to tell you how to blow the bridge, and you're just going to follow his technical expertise. You always have the veto authority, by virtue of your position and the authority you have. I think that those kinds of experiences tend to shape how you come in, and how you lead.

General Shachnow felt the following story was extremely important in his growth as a leader and humbly shared this story of his short comings as a young US Army Officer. He also candidly commented on the effects of specific events in the US Army on his growth as leader. Young Lt. Shachnow allowed his ego and emotions to get the best of him in dealing with a soldier in another company over his haircut during an inspection. Sid shared the details of the aftermath of this event:

When Captain Pat Luckwurl came to see me, he started arguing about the situation. I'm being very unreasonable about this whole thing, and he said a few key words that sort of upset me. I ordered the Captain out of "my Command post" and exceeded to have him removed. Well, Captain Pat Luckwurl seeing that the thing was spinning out of control, and, he said, "It will not be necessary," turned around, and left. He handled himself extremely professionally. I was the guy that was emotionally all over the landscape. He was cool, calm, and collected.

But, I had a phone call maybe about twenty minutes later. My Battalion Commander, Colonel Wally, wanted to see me now. And I went up to see him. He had me cooling my heels in the waiting room for quite a while, then he ordered me to come in. I went in, and I saluted, and reported. And I knew things were not going to go well because he never let me relax from my position of attention; he kept me in that position. And he told me to go back out and bring him a glass of water. I went out got a glass of water brought it in and set the glass down, Colonel Wally said, "Pat came in and told me what transpired. And you, you know, said you're a good officer. do good work. But I want you to stick you're finger in that glass of water. " I stuck it in. "Pull it out." I then dropped it out. He said, "You see the hole you left behind?" Of course there was no hole. Colonel Wally continued, "That's how indispensable you are."

The Colonel then said, "Settle down. Show some control and some maturity, or you're not going to be commanding any more." He never raised his voice. It was almost a monotone. He asked me if there's anything that I did not understand. I said, "No, sir." He said, "You're dismissed," and I left. I'll remember that "ass-chewing" for longer than I live, and let me tell you, I've had some counseling, emotional, pressing-down and what have you, but I do not remember most of them.

Most of them got lost in the shuffle. But this is one you bet that I'll remember. And it had an important impact on me. I became very, more sensitive how I behaved myself, how I controlled my temper. I'm not telling you that I all of a sudden brought everything under control, but I understand that much, much better.

Sid added this important comment on the importance and need to understand people first, and just how important it is to use humor was in leading men and to help diffuse difficult situations that leaders face:

Now this and this is going to be part of my leadership. But I find myself drawn to those kind of approaches and techniques. I find early on, that, uh, that leaders with a sense of humor had a way of diffusing situations that could be very stressful, very tense, and so I always tell that, a good sense of humor is not only a good sign of intelligence, but it's a quality that will serve you well. Serve you well in life, not just in leadership. But often these things are not enough. In spite of all the training and the proffered absolution, many of us who have killed in the heat of battle have found the act deeply repugnant. I experience that myself during both of my tours in Vietnam, so severely in one case that I began to see myself as someone I did not want to be. I had broken no rules of war, killed no one who was not trying to kill me, yet what I had done was so disturbing, I feared I might not be able to continue functioning as a soldier. Had there been someone to talk to and ask forgiveness of, I might well have done it.

Karl was a soldier who, through conditioning and circumstance, was led to commit an atrocity. But he proved himself to be human precisely by trying so desperately to rescue his humanity through confession.

As a Holocaust survivor myself, I unfortunately can not generate such magnanimity. I may know something about combat training and about what war can do to a person, but I can also testify that the misery this man inflicted on his victims defies claiming any extenuating circumstances whatever. What he did was the ultimate and irreversible denial of his humanity.

And now, at death's door, he pleads for forgiveness. That is, he requests for readmission into the human race. But his appeal is addressed to the wrong party. Those who arguably could grant forgiveness are no longer here; he murdered them. Other Germans of that era might have the right to ask for forgiveness or even plead innocence. I do not believe in collective guilt and have long ago learned to accept Germans as responsible and conscientious beings. After all, I served a considerable part of my military career in Germany protecting them from communism. I was prepared to give up my most precious possession, my life, in that effort. But those individuals who were directly and personally involved in these atrocities deserve no mercy.

The candor, emotion and intents words of US Army Major General Sid Shachnow (Ret.) Provided his insightful view of Leadership and Adversity, and specifically the balancing Justice and Forgiveness.

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