Humans are engineered to look over one shoulder and worry – arguably to good effect much of the time. But there is a counter-argument, which amounts to this: Focus on the future and stay one step ahead.
Several years ago, listening to the radio, I heard a voice I recognized, Admiral (now retired) James Loy, former Commandant of the US Coast Guard, head of TSA, and number two at the Department of Homeland Security. Non-political, all about leadership, his voice was firm, confident, steady.
The interviewer pressed him on threats facing America, not least foreign terrorism, and the countless ways in which our republic – being open – is vulnerable.
The interviewer’s point seemed to be that another attack on America – if not 9-11, then some other turn – was somehow inevitable, cause for fear, dread, and distress.
The Admiral, as he is famous for doing, listened patiently. He did not interrupt the frothy interviewer, not go to his lack of experience or assumptions, just listened.
Having worked with the Admiral tangentially, admiring his balance of optimism and realism, I was curious how he would manage this question, intended to scare.
Trained to manage crises, modeling what life teaches, and reminding me of both Ronald Reagan and Colin Powell’s “take nothing personally” approach, the Admiral calmly explained how America protects Herself, why we are safe – if we resolve to be safe, stay prepared, take the action necessary, not live scared.
Oddly, when the interview was over, I felt better, safer, stronger and more confident – frankly grateful – that people like Admiral Loy were at the helm.
Still, I wondered where he got the confidence, so I called him. When he picked up, I mentioned the interview and then asked: How could he be so confident in our ability to avert big crises, particularly another major terrorist event on US soil?
Where did that confidence in our operators, law enforcement, military, intelligence, other protectors, come from – knowing the bad guys never stopped gunning for us?
Just as he had listened before, he listened to me, then offered a life lesson: It is about staying ahead of what is bad, one step ahead of what could happen, situationally aware, unafraid to take action. We win by staying one step ahead.
Years later, his words still have force. He is right, of course. We just marked the 22nd anniversary of 9-11. Bad guys are still gunning, but we remain one step ahead.
Pondering the wisdom in his lesson, my mind has stretched to other venues, the importance of staying one step ahead in personal, family, and local issues, health and mental health, financial and foreseeable problems.
Those who are clear-eyed, neither overconfident nor fearful, who do not take themselves too seriously nor critics too personally, who stay focused – prevail.
If Proverbs is right, “Where there is no vision, the people perish,” the opposite is also true – where there is a focus on the future, staying one step ahead, we thrive.
Colin Powell would say, “Optimism is a force multiplier,” by which he meant grounded optimism gives you a fresh, invaluable perspective, the idea that problems are – in fact – soluble, because you are on them.
So, I come back to that interview given by Admiral Loy, his wording when I rang him up afterwards: Focus on the future and stay one step ahead, work on it.
For whatever reason, his words put me in mind of an historic event. Perhaps because I was a runner, it sticks in my mind, visualization of the Admiral’s counsel.
Exactly 70 years ago, in 1953, an American runner – and US Marine – Wes Santee almost ran a 4-minute mile. Soon after, Australian John Landy, almost did.
A British medical student resolved he would. In 1954, Roger Bannister broke what had seemed an unbreakable barrier, running a 3:59:04 mile.
The kicker, literally, came a year later, when Landy – who by then had also broken the 4-minute mark – ran against Bannister in what history calls “the miracle mile.”
Vying for primacy, they ran head to head. By the third lap, Landy was ahead by ten paces. Bannister never his lost confidence, footing, or hope. He kept his eyes on the future, and began his kick.
In the last turn, both men pacing under four minutes, Landy could not help himself, gave up a half step looking over his left shoulder, fearing Bannister’s move.
Bannister seized the moment, surged to the right, won by a step. Both men ran under four, but Bannister, focused on staying one step ahead when it really mattered, sealed the deal.
Confidence not fear, resolve not resignation, peace of heart in preparation; being willing to trade heart for dread, take action, stay one step ahead – is often what you need to win the fight. Admiral Loy was right.
Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.