Your Gun, Your Badge, Your Honor

Last week I attended a panel discussion at the LA Film Festival called Your Gun and Your Badge whose participants included:

Robert Crais (Writer, Cagney & Lacey, Baretta; author of the Elvis Cole mysteries)
David Milch (Writer, Hill Street Blues; creator NYPD Blue)
José Padilha (Director, Elite Squad, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within)
Gerald Petievich (ex-Secret Service agent and author, To Live and Die in L.A.)
Moderated by Los Angeles Times contributor Mark Olsen

Full disclosure, I worked for David Milch more than 20 years ago and consider him not only one of the finest working writers today, but an immensely impactful teacher.  I hadn’t heard him speak on the writing craft since I worked for him so long ago and arranged a series of lectures he gave, which carried forward the ethos he previously established when he taught creative writing at the university level.

Mark Olsen of the Los Angeles Times set the tone for the panel by noting our location downtown, the heart of so many noir tales and a reality base for police activity that defines many episodes from which fiction is derived.  All of the writers shared varying perspectives from successful careers as storytellers, but what struck me most about the discussion was its common theme focusing on authenticity.  This notion of establishing the set of norms that constitute a world view and then remaining true to them transcended police work in my mind, it even transcended the procedural staging of those norms in the form of entertainment.  In approaching their craft, the writers universally noted the mandate for extensive research as a requirement of their approach, and a bottom line almost moral responsibility to understand the details of the world they would portray before they could begin interpreting it.

Gerald Petievich, a 20 year Secret Service agent turned novelist and later screenwriter, repeatedly used the term “verisimilitude” to describe the requirements of his characters.  Jose Padilha, who was sued in Brazil for his portrayal of violence as commonality in the Elite Squad, referenced the suit as evidence he had achieved the authenticity he sought.  Robert Crais, attempting to define process in his approach to character development, quoted the renowned author Joseph Wambaugh who wondered, “Does the cop work the case, or does the case work the cop?”  David Milch talked in detail of how we watch characters struggle to overcome their failings, summing up his reflection with the powerful descriptor: “If there is a God he wants us to be honest; if there isn’t, it’s even more important.”

As I kept hearing these words become almost the foundations of a chorus — authenticity, verisimilitude, honesty — it occurred to me that so much of what we consume as popular showmanship is experienced in the form of escapism.  Our hunger for Super Hero movies seems insatiable, and with occasional exceptions, the documentary film as a form of commercial entertainment has seen better days.  Yet authenticity is a broader construct than a simple portrayal of reality — as was noted by the panel, Ziegfield was as committed to getting every stitch in every costume right, not because the audience could necessarily see it, but because whoever was wearing the costume had to know it was correct to convey the same notion of authenticity under that banner.

The consistency of this message of the artist’s commitment to authenticity was inspiring and thought-provoking.  Anyone can pay lip service to the notion of honesty, but an audience can feel the writer’s dedication in the work when presented.  But what about in the workplace, is our commitment to verisimilitude as profound as that of the author?  Is it as pronounced as it should be?  Is there a relevancy in this ethos to how we approach day to day business, the seriousness of our research, the authenticity of our value propositions and commitments to colleagues and customers?

It occurred to me that I had never heard a panel discussion at any business conference I ever attended even remotely like this one, certainly not with top dogs of equivalent stature in their respective fields who have earned the permission to delve in such expression.  Thinking about the headlines of late — of homes with mortgages underwater, of securities backed by worthless collateral, of for profit schools leaving students in debt without marketable skills, of a once trusted giant of personal financial management now behind bars — I wonder where is the verisimilitude in all that.  Surely a scam is born every few minutes, without them there would be much less to write about, but the creators of products and services might do well to see intrinsic value in the pride of authenticity, the self-knowledge and reflection that it is expected of us no differently from the creators of books, television shows, and movies.  Just as we can abandon any form of media if the hard work of noble construction is not present, so can a brand be abandoned by customers in a world of choice.

The applicability of authentic commitment seems less metaphorical than an actual model of success, where the judge is first oneself, followed then by making the offer available to others.  A scene depicted without requisite deliberation is a skit.  A brand evangelized without a consistent promise is a logo.  It’s not hard to see the distance, but it takes more than words to close the gap.

We all crave authenticity. We all crave verisimilitude. We all crave honesty.  Imagine the power of unlocking the value in that inspiration in everything we do.  The storyteller may lead, but we all can have a great deal of skin in this game if we hold ourselves accountable for the same level of commitment to detail, rigorous study, ongoing iteration, and a set of beliefs that reflects equal parts respect for the subject and the audience.  That to me is a story worth telling, experiencing, and sharing.

It’s not just about police work, it’s about all work.

Do You Know The Enemy?

Earlier this week I tweeted the following:

CorporateIntel: Palin, Weiner, Sheen, Schwarzenegger — when comic book reality passes almost daily now as normalcy, how do we come to define absurdity?

It wasn’t like this week’s noise was any more pronounced than last week’s or last year’s, it just hit me that the continuum meltdown parade really is becoming the norm. One of the politicos snagged by the mic in Congress (yes, there actually was an elected official there, despite the recess with the debt ceiling getting almost no attention right now, because we have to wait for the crisis countdown) said of Weiner, and I paraphrase, he just has to lay low a few days until the next scandal grabs the headlines and pushes him down the list, where he can return to obscurity. Wow, that’s dark, what a great way to escape the spotlight, just wait for someone to steal the stage from you — you know they’re coming, they always are, nastier antics and less newsworthy.

My concerns are somewhat broader than those framed in a poignant LA Times column this week by the consistently thoughtful writer Sandy Banks, whose point of view I share, but mine goes way past the salacious. I worry that there is such a continuum of crazy bad behavior — be it drugging in sports, insider trading by Wall Street titans, local public officials paying themselves like emperors, desperately needed public school funds being squandered on administration, a global finance executive defending himself by using the term “consensual” in response to accusations to the contrary — that all this just becomes the everyday expectation of affairs, that leaders cannot be counted on to lead, only to await their moment of embarrassment and humiliation. That is not real normalcy, but we could let it be so if we don’t fight the tone and demand better.

One could easily argue things today are no worse than they have ever been, that there is simply more sunlight being cast as disinfectant because technology now too easily causes people to trip over themselves. People think they’re clever, but they really don’t know how an iPhone works or that Internet anonymity is a head fake, the Internet cements your trail in a way sniffing dogs would be envious. Some people think the problem is that all these new tools of trouble are so readily available and poorly understood — Facebook, Twitter, digital cameras, video surveillance virtually everywhere we walk. No doubt these innovations make the circus easier to see, but they don’t create the circus. People create the circus by acting without thinking through the consequences of their actions, then utilizing technology without fully understanding its constructs. Are we going to blame the typewriter for all the unjust laws, decrees, and acts that sinister governments have published? Shall we blame radio and television for commercials that told us cigarettes were not bad for us? I remember many years ago explaining to a colleague who was using AOL messenger for intraoffice communication how many people around the world had a clear text window into every word that was being typed by the IM circle; it was an innocent enough mistake, IM was new at the time and very useful, without a lot of competitors, so people just used it without comprehension or context. That didn’t make the technology good or bad, it simply meant it was being misused. We can’t blame the technology for the traps we set for ourselves.

My point is not to be judgmental, but to encourage cognizance of the noise and the noisemakers around us and the profound impact this is having on our numbing factors. This is not about the media, it’s about people of high-profile knowingly doing stupid things and deluding themselves into believing they will evade the traps. If those in leadership choose to be cavalier with the attendant visibility that surrounds their actions, personal and professional, at what point will no leader be able to command respect? The problem is that cynicism is a disease, it creeps up on our point of view and infects our thinking in negative tones to the point where it is much easier to believe no one than to believe anyone. That is not a very happy place to be, especially when gigantic problems need to be solved that require teamwork and shared vision, reflections of trust that are not in abundance in a climate of broad disbelief and numbing retreat.

For me here’s the rub: Leadership is a privilege. The ability to have others look to someone as a symbolic or actual role model is a gift. If you don’t want to be passed the torch, don’t reach out for it.

A well-reasoned response might be that there is a clear separation of our personal and professional lives, and no one chooses to be the target of embarrassment, it is simply a byproduct of human error, of which we are all capable. I guess I just don’t buy that, because with all the innovation that is now the platform of our lives, the separation between personal and professional is increasingly challenging. We may set out to keep our Friends on Facebook and our Contacts on LinkedIn, but we all know, the mash-up follows us real-time. We may try to keep one mobile phone for work and one for business. Yeah, try that, good luck remembering which is on your right pocket and which is in your left. If technology brings the personal and professional together as a reflection of reality, then to not be aware of it is to be agreeably ignorant. Last I looked, ignorance is not a great defense strategy for leadership; if it’s not a quality one would want in their bio, then it’s not a fallback when the media machine attacks. How about awareness, caution, integrity, and dignity. Technology can’t take those away from anyone.

The Enemy is Apathy. Apathy is a result, it is our hands in the air when we toss in the towel and think we can’t make things better, that our singular votes no longer matter (they do!). When we become so comfortably numb that we no longer wonder if bad behavior is the norm, the enemy wins. How numb can we be and still feel human? Most people don’t want to be numb, they want to be empowered. Leadership is the gift to empower.

Fight the Enemy.