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The Suicide of EuropeIndividualism
The assassination on June 28, 1914, of Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand accelerated escalating tensions between European nations culminating in a declaration of war by Austria-Hungary exactly one month later on July 28. The reasons for this war, the dearth of leadership in permitting it, and the nature of entangling alliances fill volumes – in every language.  My interest in this early war period, aside from the failure of leadership, involves the individualism demonstrated in a mostly forgotten event on Christmas Eve 1914, on a battlefield near Ypres, Belgium.

Though many thought this war would end quickly, others felt differently, envisioning a protracted, bitter struggle. The fierce fighting moved Pope Benedict XV, who called the war the “Suicide of Europe”, to write his first encyclical, Ad Beatissmi Apostolorum, published in the Autumn of 1914, appealing to the leaders of the world to sign a Christmas truce as a means for a meaningful dialogue on a lasting peace. World leaders ignored his pleas and, with less than five months of fighting between the warring states, German military forces opposed British and French from deeply trenched positions,  six to eight feet deep, carved into the countryside. A signed armistice was four years and fifteen million dead away. What happened amidst heavy fighting in the winter of 1914, confounded many.

A small group of German soldiers placed small Christmas trees, lit with candles, outside their trenches on Christmas Eve and, while doing so, began caroling. From across the carnage of “no man’s land” between the enemy lines, rose songs in response from the British and French. Several of the German soldiers, working in England before the war, had learned enough English to propose a ‘Christmas Truce’ and shouted ‘terms’ to the opposing forces. Along several miles of trenches, British, French and German soldiers reached a general understanding of no shooting between them. Amidst the firing of several units, these young men persisted in celebrating Christmas even under the threat of imminent death. Signs along the German front stated in English ‘If you don’t fight, we don’t fight’ while several British units improvised with ‘Merry Christmas’ placards in German, awaiting a response. As this continued on Christmas Eve, a spontaneous truce resulted for Christmas Day, woven from the goodwill and resilience of the young men fighting in that terrible place.

Soldiers left their trenches, meeting in the middle of ‘no man’s land’ to shake hands with the enemy, bury their respective dead and exchange gifts. Chocolate, liquor, cards, and tobacco traded warmly between them. A game of soccer (football to our European friends) ensued as well. For a short period, the fighting ended in the spirit of Christmas charity and peace reigned on Christmas Day, though not as hoped for by the Pope. It would not last.

Fighting Resumes, but Individualism Persists
Upon learning of the breakdown in military protocol, Generals commanded their respective units to cease fraternization and commence shooting immediately and, after Christmas, they did – for four long years. During the following Christmas seasons of 1915-1917, military command from each side ordered artillery barrages typically lasting through Christmas Day. The intention was unmistakable; peace would not be wrought by young men sent to fight.  Informally though, less obvious truces arose every Christmas and periodically throughout the year. Soldiers fired on prescribed areas at preordained times to reduce casualties. French and German soldiers actually tunneled to each other at one point to exchange commodities in making life more tolerable in the trenches for their respective units.

Individualism Integral to Resilience
One point hopefully conveyed in this post is that salvation resides within the individualism most often found (and lost) with our youth, not in the gluttony or faded glory of  elder leaders more ravening wolves than inspired shepherds. Generally, sane men gravitate toward peace and collaboration even amidst disagreements. Though contradictory to popular thinking, families embracing the individualism of its sons and daughters imbue far tighter bonds and stronger communication than those that do not. High-performance Teams inherently understand this and cultivate individual growth in the context of greater organizational performance. From the perspective of government, a nation’s ability to defend individual freedoms protects and promotes greater liberty for all.

Unfortunately, we enter a period of darkening skies, where a draconian collectivism of thought categorized as political correctness casts an ominous pall upon voices discordant to ‘mainstream’ thought. Independent voices fall silent. We suffer for their loss. Organizations must remain wary of the broader social activism in ensuring the egalitarianism that sustains it continues to thrive.

Adam Martin of the Ludwig von Mises Institute treats the matter nicely in his essay What We Mean by Individualism:

The precondition for treating another person as a person is to recognize his individual worth. The deadly flaw of collectivism is to replace concern for man with concern for mankind, which is nothing but a pattern resulting from the actions of individual man. This shift of focus can only come at the expense of the welfare of individual men.

It is always in this light that the value of (families) should be understood. Voluntary associations are important not for their own sake, but because they fulfill man’s nature. True partnership and community can only come about between distinct individuals. When we fight for our families, we must not fight for family in the abstract but for the flesh and blood people that we know and love. The efforts of those…to pit the community against the individual as opposing values is thus theoretically baseless; in an attempt to emphasize man’s social nature, they forget that such a nature must inhere in a man.

Shortly before his death, H.G. Wells, the futurist and author if 1984, was asked what he would like inscribed as an epitaph upon his tombstone. His chilling reply,”Damn you all, I told you so”, resonates today. My perceptions run not so dark, but Wells’ prescient writing on the inherent risk of abuse by an authoritarian government loom large in today’s surveillance society. What may organizations glean from this?

Individualism in the Context of Organizations
Organizations studying this historical anomaly find that the same resilience and individualism of the youth in 1914 remains prevalent today; an abundance of charity, generosity, and spirit of cheerfulness in all weathers. High-performance organizations typically have cultures deep in shared vision, mutual objectives and passions. Their resilience and ability to effectively adapt to shifting paradigms is due, in no small part, to individual contributions to the strategic vision of the organization. This promotion of individual contribution to the success of the organization in terms of autonomy, decentralized authority and contributions to the Team differentiates them from their competition.

Globalism, transculturalism and greater alignment of asymmetrical thinking promises tremendous benefit to all mankind, not just organizations, though precisely from the contributions of individual experience discussed. Forced collective thinking in organizations is equivocation in the pursuit of excellence; a prescribed commitment to mediocrity. The flames of creativity and innovation dim, if not snuffed entirely.

Components of Resilient Organizations
How does an organization build resiliency through cultivating high-performance individuals? A number of paths exist, but key actions for this to “go viral” include:

  • Understand the importance of small, cohesive teams: tight organizational units exhibit high structural cohesion and know each Teammate well – capabilities, interests and contributions.
  • Understand and develop ‘small world’ properties: encourage networking between members across your matrix outside of the organization to dramatically reduce the the mean distance between any two members within your matrix.  Professional memberships, community activities, clubs, etc. promote improved connectivity.
  • Encourage connectivity:  the preponderance of electronic communications (Internet, Mobile, IM, Twitter, etc) allow for greater freedoms in connecting internally. Promote open source networks that permit scaling. You may find other organizations – perhaps outside your industry or market – to collaborate with. Organizations that leverage connectivity become highly integrated hubs. As networks grow, organizations benefit by their influence and ability to quickly reach within (and without) to respond to change.

The Law of the Jungle
So, with all of that said, a cautionary statement on unbridled individualism. While it remains key to resilience, growth through innovation and competitive advantage, it must be channeled to the strategic aims of the organization. As Rudyard Kipling stated in The Law of the Jungle:

Now this is the Law of the Jungle – as old and as true as the sky;
And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper,
But the Wolf that shall break it must die.
As the creeper that girdles the tree-trunk,
The Law runneth forward and back –
For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf,
And the strength of the of the Wolf is the Pack.

Teach your Teams to do the right thing, to adhere to honest directives, and pursue excellence in serving the interests of client and organization.


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