All posts by cjcheetham

Cheerleading is not leadership

The problem with our Potemkin village is not that we don’t have a good enough tour guide. – Anonymous


From a fan’s perspective, there is nothing worse than a one-sided game, the dreaded blowout. And in the world of blowouts there is nothing worse than the High School basketball blowout.  You know what I mean, the games where the talent disparity is so high that there is no chance of the lesser team even competing, never mind winning.

I recently attended such a game.  The score at halftime was something like 51 – 6.  I was seated among the family and classmates of that losing team, and the mood was utter despair and silence.  However, during timeouts, the school’s cheerleaders trotted merrily out on the floor and implored the catatonic fan base to “fight fight fight!” or shouted rhymes about how our squad was about to win because we had heart and spirit.

At first I was amused by the juxtaposition of the basketball team being blown off the court and these cheerleaders enthusiastically jumping and shouting.  It was absurd.  Yet, as the game went on I found myself craving more cheerleading and less basketball.  It was a form of torture to deal with the reality of disheartened boys getting blown off the court; it was sweet relief when smiling cheerleaders were doing high-flying stunts. 

During the second half, as the opposing team repeatedly made easy buckets the score grew worse.  Despite the rout, whenever our boys managed to score, even a single point via free throw, the cheerleaders would jump about, shaking pom-poms and executing impressive high leg kicks.  By game’s end, the boys had lost by 71.  The team left the court confused and dejected while the cheerleaders shouted “good effort” and “nice try!”

But the boys aren’t stupid; they knew despite the shouts from cheerleaders, they just got crushed.


Part of a leader’s job is certainly encouragement.  A leader has to find ways to motivate his team to attack challenges and problems with confidence.  It is a good leadership trait to exhort your team to greatness.  The troops want to be rallied.  They want a leader who says “it can be done!”

However, when exhortation crosses the line and become cheerleading, you are no longer leading.  Instead you have replaced reality with fantasy.  Your team knows this; and you will end up losing your credibility as a leader. 

Once the leader compromises on honesty, he will quickly lose his credibility with the troops.  When your team is walking off the court following a 71-point blowout, resist the temptation to add insult to injury by offering up platitudes about “good effort” while shaking a pom-pom.



The military is facing another year of bad budgets and manpower cuts this year.  More than a decade of war with (at best) mixed results has been rewarded with planned deep cuts of uniformed personnel.  All branches of the military are being cut, manpower will be lost, experience will leave, and weapons systems will be eliminated or moth-balled.  Oh, and for those who remain, your retirement is on the chopping block.

It has the feeling of a high school basketball blowout.

Yet, the sloganeering and empty rhetoric of how “people are our most important resource” continues unabated.  Leaders at all levels are executing high leg kicks and shouting “we have spirit, yes we do!” 

Spirit, we may have, but do we have uniformed personnel to accomplish our mission?

There is a way for a basketball team to respond to a blowout.  First, you honestly assess how badly you played; you accept reality.  Then you get to work in practice.  The coach, as a leader, doesn’t waste a lot of time trying to find bright spots in a 71-point loss.  Instead he puts together a plan to address shortcomings and overcome failure.  The situation requires honesty.  Slogans simply aren’t going to cut it.

Cheerleaders might tell the team they are wonderful, but a cheerleader isn’t going to solve the problems of that team.  Problem solving requires a leader – a coach.  The coach is going to get back to basics.  He will focus on basic skills and the most important skills.  A back to basics approach focused on mission accomplishment.


The troops aren’t stupid. 

They doubt our sincerity when leaders say “our most important resource is our uniformed personnel.”  The troops have seen budget cuts gut training and readiness.  They have seen the projected troop strengths going south.  The troops see vital resources diverted to social engineering efforts and CYA programs designed to placate media firestorms.

The troops aren’t stupid.

They watched as the entire DoD went into freak-out mode when DoD civilians were furloughed for 11 days (which was eventually only 6 days) last year.  Those same troops can’t help but notice there is no similar outcry when the military announces huge cuts in uniformed personnel.  And yes, the troops see that there are approximately 750,000 civilians working for the DoD.  There are 750,000 elephants in the living room, eating peanuts, as uniformed manpower gets cut.  The troops know that 750,000 civilians in the DoD is almost the same size of the Army and Navy combined.  They also see that there is no major cut planned for civilian personnel in DoD.  The troops know that Mr. Putin isn’t concerned with civilian DoD employees as he calculates his next move in the Ukraine, yet civilian manpower in the DoD is untouchable. 

The troops aren’t stupid.  They see the stories and speeches calling for cuts in EARNED benefits to military personnel. 


We do have a great military.  The people who serve in our nation’s defense are great people and they do great things every day.  They need advocates and they need resources and they need leaders. 

But they don’t need cheerleaders – because they can see the score.

-cj cheetham

Copyright © 2014 cjcheetham

Forever May

Struggling to her feet, May groaned and slowly walked to greet Mark in the kitchen.  She pushed her nose into his thigh and slowly wagged her tail.

“Hello girl,” he said softly as he scratched behind her ear.  She pressed closer to him wanting more.  Mark moved his hand along her side trying unsuccessfully to avoid the tumors bulging near her ribs.  May’s ears fell limp and she sighed, almost in shame.

“You’re a good girl, May.  A good girl.”

Mark filled her bowl with water and food as he had every day for the past eleven years.   She slowly lapped at the water, showing no interest in the food.  She hadn’t taken food in a couple of days now.

Mark poured himself a bowl of cereal and a cup of coffee then sat down at the table.  May wandered slowly to her favorite spot in the kitchen, and curled up in the warm early morning sunlight.

“Morning Mark,” his father said as he entered the room and walked straight to the refrigerator.  His father packed his lunch pail with a sandwich and fruit before addressing Mark directly.  “Son, it has to be today.”

“I know Dad.”

His father looked at the floor, “It’s just that….with you leaving for college on Saturday.  You know, that dog has always been your responsibility.”

I Know Dad.”

“That was always the deal.”

Mark stood up, annoyed.  “I think I’ll take May for one more walk.”  He walked past his father and took May’s leash from the hook.  “Come on, girl.”

May stood up, tail wagging, doing her very best to be excited.

“Mark, that dog cannot be here tonight.”

“I get it, Dad!” Mark caught himself and in a soft voice repeated, “I get it.”

May nosed the leash in Mark’s hand.  She looked at him as if to say – Let’s get out of here, Mark.  Let’s go for a walk.

They went out into the back yard.  It was an unusually cold morning for August and the grass was wet.  The leash was slack in Mark’s grip as they headed for the woods behind the house.  So many times they’d made this trek, down a path they’d created together many years ago.

As a pup, there were times May would pull so hard, Mark thought his shoulder may dislocate.  Today she meandered and Mark found himself slowing his own pace so that May could still lead the way.

There was a distinct smell of fall in the air as they travelled the wooded path.  It was a smell that Mark loved even though he’d discovered that fall made him sad.  He couldn’t explain his new attitude toward autumn, since he liked school and loved football, but one day last year he found himself sitting near a freshly raked pile of leaves and that smell brought tears to his eyes.  He’d been embarrassed by that, and never told anyone.

May caught a distant scent and stopped walking looking into the woods.  Mark looked too, but he couldn’t see what May sensed.

“Hey girl, remember when you chased that white-tail out here?”  May wagged her tail.

Years earlier, May had spotted a deer in the wood line and run off crashing through the brush.  It took Mark a frantic hour to find May that day.  He was alone in the woods calling for her, with an empty leash in his hand.  He had looked skyward and thanked God when May had stumbled out the brush, exhausted and filthy.

“What were you going to do with a deer if you caught it?”  Mark smiled and May walked to him and licked the back of his hand.

By the time they got to the lake, May was tiring.  Mark could sense it, so he sat down on the split log bench and let her curl up and rest.

“Remember this spot, May?  This is the spot where I kissed Laurie for the first time.”  May groaned and looked away.  “You didn’t like her much, did you May?”  He checked his watch and then added “You sure had her pegged, didn’t you?  Disaster.”

May opened her mouth in the shape of a dog-smile.  She stood and walked to Mark, resting her head on his lap, just like she had for nearly all his life.  She looked up at him with soft brown eyes.  They were sad eyes today without a trace of the mischief that he loved so much.

Mark stroked May’s head and remembered sleeping under the stars with her at his side not far from this spot.  They would escape to the lake when Dad was hitting the bottle.   There was that summer, when they’d lost Mom, that he’d been camping an awful lot.

“Remember that, girl?  We’d sleep out here?”  May looked at him but didn’t raise her head from his lap.  “Those were good times, weren’t they?   Especially when you chased off Louie Fanza and his crowd.”

Fanza was a few years older than Mark and always looking for trouble.  One night, Fanza and his gang had shown up at the lake.  Fanza was angry and drunk.  It probably would have turned out bad for Mark, but the Fanza gang wasn’t very interested in bullying when they got a look at the large German Shepherd at Mark’s side.

“I sure hope I don’t meet any Fanzas at college.”

May stood up ready to go home.

“Listen, May.  I gotta take you to the Doc today.”  May wagged her tail and cocked her head.  “You are really sick, girl.  And I have to go to college on Saturday.  So Doc is going to make you sleep for a really long time…forever.  So, I need to tell you goodbye now.  I’m not going to cry when I take you into Doc’s place.”

Tears streamed down his cheeks.  He felt a chill as the August sun was now obscured by clouds.

“May, you’ve been so good to me.  I couldn’t have made it through everything without you.  I’m not sure we’ll see each other again.  Some people say that heaven has to have dogs or it wouldn’t be heaven.  I don’t know.  I’ve studied it and I just don’t know.  But I’d like to believe we’ll meet again.”

May jumped up in his lap, finding long-lost strength.  She licked his face and he laughed through the tears.   He wiped his cheeks with the sleeve of his flannel shirt.

“Come on, Girl.  We need to get back on the path.”

They walked slowly toward home.  It was getting cooler and Mark thought they might get rained on.  He spoke aloud as he walked but May ignored him.

“You know May, I’m not even sure I want to go to college.  I don’t belong in a city; I belong in the woods not in some classroom.  Maybe I shouldn’t even go.”

As they approached the trailhead he could see his darkened house.  Dad had long ago left for work.  There was Mark’s truck parked in the driveway, looming.  He’d let May ride in the cab today for sure.   Before leaving the woods Mark kneeled down and hugged her, his face buried in May’s neck.

“I wish we could stay here forever.”

He hugged her tighter, “Forever May.”

Copyright © 2014 cjcheetham

That Hippy Guy from Route 27

In the summer of 1972, I was a happy boy living in small town America.  There wasn’t much to my town of Pembroke in those days.  It was, quite literally, a town without a stop-light.  My family’s small house on Plain Street had little traffic, automated or pedestrian.  There was really no reason to drive down Plain Street unless you lived there or you were headed to the Country Corner Store, a mom and pop version of 7-11.  If you were passing through town, you stayed on Route 27, which was about thirty yards through the woods across from our driveway.  From my yard, you could hear the cars on route 27 traveling about 50 miles per hour as they headed south out of Pembroke.

For a boy, there was a huge benefit to that kind of blissful isolation; it meant you could play in your front yard.  It was safe.  You could hear the bustle of Route 27, but that was a world away, through those sheltering woods.

My siblings and I would spend a great deal of time running around that front yard.  Somehow, we were able to fit tag, football, epic acorn fights, and even baseball within the confines of that yard which quite frankly was not big enough for any of that.

One day, in the early summer of 1972 I found myself outside in my front yard.  I was inspecting a colony of ants that had established themselves in the soft sand at the edge of the driveway.  These were black ants, friendly cousins to the dreaded biting red ants.  Black ants were peaceful, so they would allow all kinds of human intrusions.  As I watched their frenetic activity, occasionally poking the ants with a stick like I was an annoying insect deity, I looked up and noticed a man walking down Plain Street.  He had come from Route 27.

I watched him closely.  He was a young man, perhaps 19 years old.  He wore black boots, faded jeans and a dark suede jacket that had fringes down the sleeves.  His hair was an amazing orange afro which made him appear 3 inches taller than he actually was.  He looked pale and sullen.  I dropped my stick and watched him as he approached.

This was a hippy!  I had a vague understanding of hippies.  At that time in America, hippies were getting an inordinate amount of coverage from the media.  It seemed that was all the media would talk about in the early 1970s.  Every show or commercial on television, the news, the radio – there was constant chatter about the hippy culture.  My Dad would occasionally grumble about “damned hippies” so I knew there was something strange about this man walking down Plain Street.

He walked deliberately as I stared at him.  He was definitely aware of my gaze, but he tried not to look back at me.  As he walked, his shoulders sort of swayed as if he were listening to a Marvin Gaye song in his mind.  Then as he got to the end of my driveway, something miraculous happened.   He stopped and looked at me.

I nervously held up my right hand in a non-waiving hello.  The Hippy-Guy reached into the pocket of his jeans.  Then in one motion, he pulled out a coin and flipped it at me with his thumb.  The coin spun beautifully in the May sunshine.  I watched as it travelled in an impossibly high arc and then it landed softly in the sand sliding gently to a stop near those black ants.

I hurried to pick it up.  I think I must have let out some kind of audible joyous sigh as I examined the coin.  It was a silver dollar!   Eisenhower’s profile, so stately and so proud, gleamed on the face of the coin.

When I was a kid, there was nothing more exciting in the world of legal tender than a silver dollar.  It was so rare to get your hands on one, yet here I was in my driveway holding a silver dollar that was just tossed to me by the Hippy-Guy from Route 27.  To a kid, a silver dollar was not currency; it was treasure.   I stared at him in awe, afraid to even smile.

Then the hippy-guy flashed me a peace sign and walked on his way.  He never uttered a word.

I ran in the house to tell my mother.

“He gave me a silver dollar!”


“That Hippy-guy from Route 27!”

My mother looked out the window.  She explained that the Hippy-Guy from Route 27 was actually a young man named Dennis.  Mom explained that he was “troubled” and that his father had recently died.  She seemed sad about that and said something about Vietnam, but for a kid with a silver dollar in his hand it was hard to focus on death.


Later that summer, my brothers and I were running around my front yard on an impossibly hot July day.  It was so hot that the insects mocked us by making ridiculously loud noises – rattling and chirping to provide a bizarre soundtrack for the blazing conditions.  We were tossing a baseball when we heard a car traveling fast down Route 27.

The car was going way too fast.  The sounds of squealing tires ripped through the woods across from my driveway.  The car’s brakes seemed to be screaming “Noooooo!” as we heard the horrific sound of impact.  The sounds of crunching steel and snapping wood shattered the quiet of our front yard.

My brothers and I looked at each other and in an instant we had flung our gloves to the ground and were running to the sound of that accident.  It was a full sprint through the woods.  When we reached Route 27, there was a small group gathered, maybe 5 – 7 people.  A car had plowed directly through a telephone pole and there were live electrical wires on the ground.  Some guy said something to us like, “now, you boys stay back.”

The car was upright and in the grass next to the road.  Luckily for the driver, the car had come to a stop, clear of those live electrical wires.  The windshield was shattered.  Initially there was no movement from the car, then the damaged driver’s door started to groan as whoever was inside that car tried to get out.  The twisted door refused to yield and then suddenly it burst wide.  I could see the black boot of the driver who had kicked it open.

The driver emerged, wobbly and confused.  He was bleeding terribly from a scalp wound.  It looked like someone had taken a straight razor and sliced his forehead from temporal lobe to temporal lobe.  The blood was so thick and so red, that his eyes appeared other-worldly.  They were white and wild.  To this day, I am horrified by that blood-red visage.

One of the men near me shouted at the driver, “Hey Buddy where do you think you’re going?”  But the bloodied man stumbled away from the wreckage.

The driver stared blankly at him and started to walk down the road.  He staggered a bit but I recognized his gait immediately – it was the Hippy-Guy from Route 27.  There was some general murmuring along the lines of “get that guy” and “stupid hippy” from the assembled audience, but no one moved to act on those thoughts.

Then he was gone.


In the late 1980s, I was home from college on a Friday afternoon.  The 1970s were a distant memory.  My generation had pretty much rejected the terrible clothes, the groovy beads, and the surrealistic pillows.  We had moved on from pie in the sky peace and love; we rejected the laziness of that generation.  We were an edgier group.  We liked our music faster, hair shorter, and leather jackets angrier.

As I stood in my parents’ living room, looking out their front window, he appeared again.  Just as he had in the summer of 1972, he was walking down Plain Street.  On his right leg he wore some kind of metal bracing system that extended from near his hip to his ankle.  His walking was labored and he seemed to grit his teeth with each step.  He looked tired and gaunt; his once magnificent orange afro was now reduced to tight, greasy curls and a receding hairline.

My mother walked into the room and asked, “What are you looking at?”

“That guy.  That Hippy-Guy from Route 27!”

My mother laughed.  “What?!”  Then she looked out the window and said sadly, “that’s just Dennis.  He walks by every day.”  She had completely forgotten about the Eisenhower Dollar.

Every day?  What is he doing?”

“He just walks down to the Country Corner Store, buys some beer and then goes home.”


“It’s sad.”


I waited for about 15 minutes and then went out to my car.  I walked around to the rear driver’s side door.  There on the edge of the driveway were my old friends.  The black ants worked endlessly – scurrying, carrying specks of food.  In 15 years of tireless labor, they hadn’t improved their lot at all.  Their ant hill was still an unimpressive series of holes in the soft sand.  I toyed with the idea of grabbing a stick and once again playing the role of a vengeful ant-deity, just to break up their miserable monotony.

Then I saw the Hippy-Guy from Route 27 returning from the Country Corner Store.  He was clutching a paper sack closely to his body.  I pretended to be looking for something important in my back seat; to not let it be obvious that I was watching him.  Finally, I stood up straight and looked right at him.  The Hippy Guy from Route 27 looked right back at me making solid eye contact, as he hobbled down Plain Street.

I thought about running to him.  I wanted to shake his hand; to embrace him and say “Dennis!  How are you doing?  You don’t remember me probably, but remember the silver dollar?  Do you remember that Dennis?  And that horrible car accident on that hot day?  Oh Dennis!  How did you ever survive that car accident?”

But I didn’t do that.  I just stood staring.

Finally, I raised my right hand awkwardly in a non-waiving hello.

The Hippy-Guy from Route 27 didn’t say a word.  Then with his free hand he flashed me a peace sign.

A few moments later, he was gone.


Copyright © 2014 cjcheetham

The Day of Grim Tasks – January 2nd


There has to be a better way to start the New Year than January 2nd.

After more than a month of feasting, parties, laughter, gifts and kindness, most of America awoke today to the reality of January; predictably cold, reliably grey January.  One minute it is December and you’ve just bit into a warm sugar cookie and the next you are asking your wife where to store the extension cords.

It is the day of grim tasks.

The day when you go out and take the lights off the shrubs and the cold jars your soul.  Funny, you think, it isn’t much colder than it was in late November when I put these lights up.  Yet, today your nose runs and your hands stiffen as you pull the multi-colored strings down.  The lights repeatedly get caught up in the branches, as if the bushes are saying, “No!  Not yet – don’t take them away just yet.”  But you just mutter to yourself and keep ripping the lights free.  Then you pile them into a box in a tangled ball, thereby setting up next November’s ritualistic question, “Honey, how did these lights get so damn tangled?”

You walk into the house and the weather channel is blathering about a winter storm.  Not a festive holiday snow with carolers and hot chocolate, but a January snow full of danger, delay and windshields that will need scraping during high wind conditions.  So, you switch off the television.

Heading into the kitchen you begin throwing out Christmas goodies like you are a Grinch showing up 9 days too late.  Christmas cookies lingering in jars and tins are the first to go.  You take a bite and confirm – there is absolutely no flavor left at all.  Then it’s off the fridge.  There is a carton of eggnog that will have to go, and some left over cheese with no crackers as a mate.  Wait, is that a bowl of cranberry sauce lingering in the back, perhaps hiding?  And then you are bagging up trash and taking it out; a perfect crime leaving no trace of yuletide glee.

You steel yourself because it’s time for the truly miserable task; the un-trimming of the tree.  Down come angels and glittering snowflakes.  The tree’s dried needles and branches scratch you; and you remember that no one has watered this spruce in a couple of weeks.  You take the fragile, beautiful ornaments and entomb them in white tissue paper.  They fit nicely in those same old boxes marked “Christmas” and covered in more than a decade of packing tape.

You find yourself offering morbid commentary, “That’s right boys; back into your Christmas coffins until next year.”  Then everything is stored neatly into the basement, to be forgotten for a year.  Those boxes will sit in storage unnoticed until you have to move them to find summer’s lawn chairs.

The dried out sappy tree is out at the curb and you start wondering why you didn’t ask Santa for a vacuum, because the tree’s needles are refusing to let go of the carpet.  Eventually, your determination pays off and the living room has returned to its pre-thanksgiving state.  Except there is that circle from the tree-stand imprinted in the carpet.  That will serve as a reminder that mirth once stood here.


At least, that’s how my January 2nd went.

So it’s time for coffee and maybe a look at those bills, but I am feeling pretty good about myself.  I’m thinking “it was a great holiday season but let’s get moving – it’s 2014.  There is a lot to get done this year.  I mean we can’t sit around partying all day long.  It’s time to get back to reality.”  I start to rationalize, “I’m actually glad the holiday season is over.  I mean it’s just too much!  In fact, it’s time to make a 2014 to-do list.”

So I walk into the kitchen and my wife hands me a piece of paper she found in the “junk drawer” on top of the pens.

“What’s this?” I ask as I take the folded up battered piece of notebook paper.

“Read it.”

I unfold it and it’s a note written in my daughter’s hand:

Dear Mr. Santa Claus,

Thank you so much for all of my gifts!  You brought me almost everything I asked for.



P.S. Write back!

I love January 2nd.

-cj cheetham

Copyright © 2014 cjcheetham

About Those Military Pensions

What Every American Should Know About Military Pensions

The United States military is a popular institution.  The American people are incredibly supportive of their troops.  When surveys are taken asking “what profession do you admire most?” the military typically scores at, or near the very top.

Yet despite its popularity, the military is not a popular career choice.  Only about 1% of Americans serve in the military.  Talk about it a dinner party sometime and you’ll eventually hear people say things like “I could never do it; I could never live that way.”

This disconnect is easy to explain.  The military life, while rewarding, fulfilling, and important, is also very difficult.  The obvious dissuader from joining the military is war, but even beyond that obvious disincentive, the military lifestyle creates unique challenges that most people aren’t interested in.

For example, the military rules and regulations are limitations on personal liberty and most Americans have no interest in living under those restrictions.  The military is an extremely difficult lifestyle for families – and it goes beyond the obvious stress of deployments.  Military members are ordered to move every 3 years, creating huge stresses on their families.  All that movement means you can never put equity in a home, your kids are constantly switching schools (for example my son who is a junior in high school in his seventh different school system), you are constantly packing and unpacking, you have real challenges developing meaningful community ties, and with each move you get the joy of navigating the new DMV rules of the state you are residing in.  Lastly, the military work is tough; rewarding yes, but tough.

Ask a military member, “Do you work a 40 hour week?” He or she will answer, “only if I take leave Thursday through Saturday.”  The average workweek for military members, especially senior officers and senior non-commissioned officers, is 60 – 70 hours a week.  They are usually working 6am to 6pm and then sneaking in on the weekend to catch up on something.


I happen to be a fan of free market economics.  If the free market were presented with recruiting people to work in the military with its challenging workload, that involves fighting in wars, long hours, family separation, limits on individual freedom – the free market would respond by creating incentives.  The number one incentive would be salary – a huge salary to get people to do this difficult military job.

Congress, however, is not a free market.  They created a different plan.  The military pay plan that has been in place for decades is this:

Pay military members as low a salary as we can get away with and incentivize military service with earned benefits (like pensions).

Why?  Because Washington D.C. knows that only 17% of military members will serve 20 years in the military and earn a pension.  The other 83% get nothing when they separate from the military.  Think about that for a minute.  Do you know of any industry where you can work for 15 years and earn zero retirement benefits?  Only the military system has that kind of all or nothing retirement plan.  I worked with an officer who was told by the military that he was no longer needed after 16 years – he wasn’t a bad guy; not in trouble – he just got cut during personnel reductions.  He left with nothing; no retirement plan; at age 38 after 16 years and multiple deployments to the Middle East.

It is critical to understand, this system was designed to keep people in the military.  The military uses the all or nothing retirement system to keep experienced, talented people in the ranks.  If the military had a portable retirement system where members could leave after 5 years and take retirement benefits with them, the military would lose a huge retention tool.  By dangling a 20 year pension, the military is able to pay low salaries and retain talent because for example, after 8 years military members think “well if I serve 12 more years and reach 20, I can get that pension.”  Remember, the government avoids paying retirement benefits of ANY kind to the vast majority of service members who will not serve 20 years on active duty.

Simply put, the military pension system is really deferred salary.  The congress is saying to the troops, “sure, we won’t pay you a salary commensurate with your skills, duties, and work-associated dangers now – but after 20 years of service we will pay you a pension.”  It limits the upfront salary costs for the Department of Defense.  The truly ingenious part of the system is the knowledge that 83% of military members getting paid low salaries today will never earn a pension tomorrow.


This week, in a bipartisan deal, congress decided to cut the pensions of retired military members.  What do you think congress would do if GM unilaterally reduced pensions on the United Auto Workers?  I think we all know there would be lots of grandstanding, hearings, and calls for fairness.

Leaving that aside, here’s a handy guide on military pensions for decision-makers – since I know everyone loves “talking points”:

1.  Military Pensions are an earned benefit not an “entitlement program.”  Pensions are not a hand-out.  This is not charity or welfare.  Every penny of a pension is an earned benefit.  It was designed by congress to recruit and retain people into the military.  Only 17% of military personnel are able to earn this benefit by serving for 20 years.  Any congressman comparing an earned benefit to welfare or charity probably hasn’t done his homework.  It is an incredible insult to boot.

2. Military pensions are deferred salary:   The military salaries are intentionally low.  The pension system is a recruiting and retention tool to get qualified talented Americans to serve in the military.  If congress cuts this deferred salary plan, we will have only bad choices:  A. Significantly raise real salaries to off-set the lower pension.  B. Draft citizens into the military and treat them like indentured servants.  C.  Watch talented people leave the military.

In other words, the pension system is the most palatable and cost-effective recruiting tool we have. (Instead, this week congress cut pensions while offering no pay raise at all for the troops).

3.  Military Pensions are an all or nothing system:  There will be lots of chatter about military members who join at age 18, serve 20 years, and retire at age 38.  What you won’t hear about is the guy who joins at 18, serves 10 years and separates with absolutely zero retirement benefits at age 28.  You won’t hear about the officer who serves 12 years after college and separates from the military at age 35 with nothing in terms of retirement planning.

The fact is, military members continue to work when they leave the service.  The pension system, while an attractive payment of deferred salary, does not allow the vast majority of military retirees a life of leisure.  It is a supplement to a second career.


There is a tendency by elected leaders and others to try to compare military service to any other job.  I’ve heard a congressman say, “if someone is 42 years old, they can still work,” as an argument in favor of cutting military pensions.  True, a 42-year-old can still work.  But you will have precious few 42-year-old military members on active duty congressman, because they will not commit to a military career if they are not compensated for their service.

As a military we desperately need the 28 – 40 year old service members.  This is the heart and soul of the organization, and they are underpaid.  The pension system, while not perfect, represents an acknowledgement that 20 years of military service at a low salary is not an attractive option for young Americans.  It isn’t an entitlement; it isn’t a handout.

Military pensions are simply deferred payment of salary for a job well-done.

-cj cheetham

Copyright © 2013 cjcheetham


But I Like the Paper Ones

But I like the paper ones…


Christmas is a time of unbridled nostalgia.  It seems no matter where I go or what I do, something – a smell, a song, a show, a store – is triggering yuletide memories.  If I’m not careful I can drift off to the North Pole for an extended stay.

Last night, we were decorating our Christmas tree – yes, late for us this year.  Between sports, events, and travel it was next to impossible to get our family of 5 in the same room for the requisite amount of time to trim up the tannenbaum.  And as most of you probably already know, there is no greater “nostalgia-trigger” known to man than a Christmas tree.

As we unboxed and unwrapped our ornaments I was transported back to my childhood and a tiny living room on 24 Plain Street.

My dad took some pride in our Christmas trees – always fresh cut, always (relatively) symmetrical.  When it came time to hang the ornaments on the tree, we children (I was the youngest of 4) would line up dutifully and wait to be handed an ornament by Mom or Dad.  Our parents would affix a hook and offer a suggestion to us.

“Christian, that’s a pretty one – make sure you hang it near a light so it sparkles”

“Now this one is heavy, so find a thick branch for it.”

We would dutifully comply.

Invariably, at the bottom of our ornament box my mother would find the crafts her children had made over the years.  It was really shabby art-work, misshapen Christmas Trees, poorly painted Santas, crazed-angels with incongruent wings, and reindeer that looked like poodles.   We are not a family of artistic talent.  Over the years, we children would groan as our mother would announce who created each piece of “art.”

“Oh look at this reindeer (you mean rein-dog, don’t you Mom?) that Robbie did in 4th grade!”  My oldest brother Rob would sheepishly claim ownership and responsibility for hanging Rudolph the Red-Nosed Greyhound.

We all took our turns claiming ownership for these creative atrocities:  a construction paper Christmas Tree that looked like a rhombus (note to kids:  a rhombus does not occur in nature – work on that); some kind of walnut shell with ribbons; a paper chain in gray and purple.  Then she would produce the pièce de résistance:  someone at some point in my family’s history had taken a paper cup and wrapped it with aluminum foil and called it a “Silver Bell.”  To this day the argument rages as to who created this abysmal piece of holiday décor (judging by the age of the piece it certainly wasn’t the youngest kid; so I’m off the hook).

My mother would beam as she handed us these homemade trinkets; and of course, my dad would offer advice before we hung them on the tree:

“Around the back” (meaning – don’t put this hideous artwork where people can actually see it).

“Robbie, this one goes around the back”

“Michael, put this green rhombus…”

–          “It’s a Christmas tree, Dad”

“..yah, yah – Christmas tree.  Why don’t you put that around the back?  The back needs some ornaments.”

And that’s how it went.  We would giggle because even as youngsters, we knew – our paper ornaments were not good; and yes they probably should be around the back.  Our Dad would laugh good-naturedly as we played along.

But Mom didn’t like Dad’s plan.  She would say to my father, “Don’t say that – kids, hang those where I can see them!”  Then she would glare at my father.

“I am only kidding,” he would protest as we kids drew straws on who would hang the Reynolds Wrap Silver Bell.

Then Mom would say, smiling brightly with moist eyes, “but I like the paper ones.”


Last night, we were finishing up hanging all the beautiful ornaments that we have bought over the years.  We have some great ornaments that we have acquired on vacations or at special times and in special places.   Then, we got to the final box of ornaments, still sealed.

My wife said cheerily, “that’s the box with the paper ornaments.”

My kids groaned.

As we sorted through the box we came across Santas with purple faces, a mutant red star that looked like a diseased crab, some green felt in the shape of something, and other hand-crafted treasures from our children’s young lives.  There was even a rhombus (it must be genetic).

Our teenagers laughed and teased each other as they tried to deny accountability for certain pieces.  Then they took these ornaments and tried to find places on that tree where they could hide the paper baby Jesus or the sparkly star, where no one would see.

My wife and I smiled as we watched them.  But we treasured every mutant we pulled out of that ornament box. I think we probably had the exact same look on our faces that my Mom had on her face so many years ago – joy, sadness, a longing for the past and a love of the present all rolled up in one.

Then I said “Right up front!”  I hung the red-construction-paper-Christmas-star-crab-thingy dead center and high; right where everyone can see it.

My son tried to protest, “No Dad, that can’t go there.”

“But Eli, I like the paper ones.”

-cj cheetham

Copyright © 2013 cjcheetham


This Work of Destruction is Not as Simple as You Think

In the days before 9/11, when Afghanistan seemed a world away, I remember watching a disturbing news story out of that nation.  Those were the days of Taliban rule in that troubled land.  In early 2001, the Taliban Government announced to a slumbering world, that they intended to destroy ancient Buddhist statues in the Hazarajat province of Afghanistan.

Despite the protests of historians, archeologists, governments of the West, and the United Nations, the Taliban took action to destroy the Buddha’s of Bamiyan.  These statues had been carved into high cliff walls during the 6th century.  However, the Taliban, as the new legal authority in Afghanistan, had decided the Buddha’s must be destroyed because their very presence in the land represented a gross affront to the rigid Islamism that the Taliban professed.   More than 400 Islamic clerics agreed, classifying the statues as “against Islam” and thereby lending their support to the proposed destruction.

Initially, the Taliban attempted to destroy the ancient artwork by firing artillery.  However, the statues looked back mockingly, and while damaged, the Buddha’s stood proudly.  The Taliban information minister eventually stated, oblivious to his crassness, “this work of destruction is not as simple as you think.”

Finally in March 2001, the Taliban resorted to dynamite.  Rigging the cliff walls with massive amounts of TNT, the Taliban blew up the Buddha’s of Bamiyan while shouting Allahu Akbar.

I remember watching the footage of the destruction on the evening news.  One moment the Buddha’s stood, testifying to the faith of an ancient land and the next moment there was nothing but a pile of debris and cheering Taliban.  I seethed.  My wife asked me, “What kind of people would do this?”

Indeed, what kind of people live to destroy?


This past May, I attended a conference in Alabama.  Every day, when I pulled into the parking lot of the hotel I was staying at there was a Volkswagen Golf parked in the same spot.  Affixed to the back of the VW was a fish with feet and the word “DARWIN” printed on the fish’s side.  Perhaps you’ve seen one driving around your town?

The Darwin Fish was created by people intentionally trying to make fun of Christians.

The fish symbol, called the Ichthys, is an ancient symbol of Christianity, tracing its roots to the first century when the early church lived under the severe and savage rule of Rome.  Christians of the first century adopted a simple symbol, the Ichthys.   To hide from the persecution of Rome, Christians would mark their tombs and meeting places with a simple fish.

Modern Christians affix that same fish symbol to their automobiles, stationary, businesses, etc.  For Christians, this ancient symbol is part of their heritage.  It is also a tribute to those Christians of the early church, who suffered and persevered against a government that despised them; a government that would do anything to destroy Christianity.

Just a symbol?  Yes, but an important one to people of the Christian faith.

But take a drive around your town and you will see routine desecration of that symbol.  There’s the aforementioned Darwin Fish, the Gefilte Fish, a fish with the SATAN printed on its side, a fish rocket ship, etc.

On that trip to Alabama, as I pulled into the same parking spot at my hotel, my colleague, a Christian like me, took note of that VW with the Darwin Fish affixed to it, and asked me a simple question.  “What kind of people do that?  What kind of people mock someone else’s faith?”

Indeed, what kind of people live to destroy?


This week, I’ve been making merry with my family as we prepare to celebrate the Christmas holiday.  While decorating my living room the other night, I took note of the evening news which  had a report about a group of atheists who were suing to include a Festivus Pole, made out of beer cans, next to a nativity scene in some American town.

Festivus, for those of you who aren’t fans of the television program Seinfeld, is a fictitious parody “holiday” created by the writers of that popular series.   It was a funny episode.  However, the Festivus Pole has since been adopted by American Atheists to mock the faith of Christians; using the first amendment as their legal authority to attack and degrade nativity scenes.

The Nativity Scene is an ancient tradition of the Christian faith.  It is reported to date to the year 1223, when Saint Francis of Assisi displayed the first Nativity in honor of his faith.  As a reminder to those who shared his faith, that Christmas was something to be cherished and revered.

Does that mean that everyone must celebrate Christmas?  Of course not – many across the globe ignore Christmas every year.  It was simply a reminder to those of a like mind, that they shared something special; a faith in a loving God.

Am I saying that confused people can’t have a Festivus Pole?  No.  But when you take a sitcom parody and turn it into your opportunity to attack the faith of your neighbors, I am left asking myself:  What kind of people do this?

Indeed what kind of people live to destroy?


“If I could work my will,” said Scrooge indignantly, “Every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!”


I suppose there will be many lawyers, and lawyerly types, who will want to have a protracted argument about the rights of people to display Darwin Fish and Festivus poles.  Yes, that is all well and good; just as there were many (some 400 plus!) clerics who would explain in explicit detail why the Buddhas of Bamiyan must be destroyed.

But decent people know better than that.  And decent people everywhere are left pondering, “what kind of people do this?”

Indeed, what kind of people live to destroy?

-CJ Cheetham

Copyright © 2013 cjcheetham

Remarks: POW/MIA Day – September 20, 2013 Newark DE

Tonight I had the honor of speaking to American heroes – veterans who had gathered in Newark Delaware to express gratitude to America’s POW/MIA.  It was a great privilege to meet comrades from the Korean and Vietnam wars. 


Good evening.

First of all, I want to thank the veterans assembled here tonight for putting together this outstanding tribute to America’s prisoners of war and those still missing in action.  It is a wonderful event and I thank you for allowing me to be a small part of it.

I’ve been in the military for more than 29 years, as both an enlisted man in the Army, and now an officer in the Air Force.   I’ve noticed that at this point in my career, I tend to look back more often than I did when I was a much younger man.

When I reflect on my military career it always comes back to this:  I love the military.  There are two very good reasons why and I hope my comrades, the veterans assembled here tonight will agree with me – what makes the profession of arms a great vocation is first our mission is to defend the greatest nation the world has ever seen, the United States.  Yes, America is exceptional and I don’t care what a cracked communist KGB agent in Russia has to say on that subject.

But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, what makes the American military great is the relationships we build.  It is our people – the soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen that make up our forces – that truly makes our military an incredible team.  It is their dedication, patriotism, and incredible spirit that inspire me.  There is no other organization in the world that can take citizens from disparate backgrounds, different economic circumstances, different regions, different races, different religions, etc. – and forge them into a cohesive team dedicated to a single mission:  Defend this land we love.

Only the military can build such a team.  Only the military can take strangers and make them brothers and sisters willing to lay down their lives for one another and our nation.  It is remarkable.  It is powerful.  Yes, in the military we love our country.  But we also love each other.  Our shared experience in the defense of this land has made us different – and I thank God for it.

It is because of this love born of mutual respect and shared sacrifice that we today celebrate and honor the remarkable POW/MIAs of our nation.  We honor those who faced the brutality of prison – who faced the cruelty of our enemies – and did so with honor and dignity.  Our comrades who, to quote Churchill, faced down our enemy and simply said “go ahead and do your worst; we will do our best.”  These Americans were our best and they are our best.

Likewise, today we honor those missing in action.  It is not unusual in the fog and friction of war, for some to be classified as missing in action – this has been true from the American revolution through our efforts in the Persian Gulf.  However, it grieves us as a force and it grieves us as a people because we do not have a full accounting of the fate of our fellow warriors.  Our military, forged together from all walks of life and all corners of our great nation, will never rest until a full account of the fate of all our comrades is completed.  We cannot and will not forget because they are a part of our nation’s soul – and our souls cannot find rest until we have accounted for our countrymen because they are a part of us and we love them.

Our sorrow is particularly acute with regard to the MIAs of the Korean and Vietnam wars.  For in both of these conflicts, when war ended and hostilities no longer remained, our barbaric foes did precious little to help us account for those missing in action.  So, our nation, our military, and most importantly families, are still left wondering about the fates of those missing in action.

Today we honor the missing because we know how difficult their road was; in many cases they faced the enemy alone.  We are standing up and we are saying again proudly, we will not forget.  To our MIAs we say you are not forgotten.  We will not rest; we will not give up.  Because we know in our hearts that you did not rest and you did not give up.

Their fates are now known only to God but their valor and courage are known to all.  We know as a team – we know as a military, that this is not what we wanted for them, because we know in our hearts that we love them as our fellow warriors.

In closing, on this 34th annual POW/MIA day – let us renew the effort.  Let us never forget and let us say thank you to America’s prisoners of war and to those missing in action.  May God, the author of freedom, bless you and may He guide our efforts to honor your sacrifices.

We will never forget.

Thank you

-cj cheetham

Copyright © 2013 cjcheetham

The Hangover – American Foreign Policy Edition

Have you ever had a real hangover?  I’m not talking about being a little thirsty and sluggish after having one too many drinks the night before.  I’m talking about a crushing, tequila-hangover where you spend the entire day in agony.  You lay on the couch literally unable to move.  Your tongue feels like it is coated in the Shake ‘N Bake sour-dough recipe for pork; heartburn rages, and the only thing you want to eat is crackers (you eat 3 before vomiting).  The day never ends and no matter what your friends have planned for you – tickets to the big game, a BBQ at the home of the beautiful woman you are secretly in love with, a trip to the beach, etc. – no matter what they offer – you steadfastly refuse.  You groan “hell no – I am not leaving this sofa, EVER!”

Then in your solitude you utter those well-remembered words – “I’m never drinking again…”

The United States is in the throes of a full-blown red-alarm foreign policy hangover.  More than a decade of fruitless, yet costly, nation-building has brought the American people to the sofa.  We have an ice bag on our head; we are wearing mismatched slippers and an old robe.  Our standard answer for the foreseeable future is going to be “hell no.”   We don’t care if John McCain walks into our living room and says “snap out of it.  This is important!”  We are not going to fall for an invitation to any party, even if the invitation comes from that really cool guy, Barack.  No sir, we are sitting, eating Ritz crackers, and we are NEVER drinking again.


The last time America had a hangover like this was 1975.  I remember it clearly because I was an 11-year old who was way too interested in geopolitics.  From 1975 until the early 1980s, America sat on the sofa.  Oh sure, we could have gotten up at any time – but the point is: we didn’t want to.  Countries fell to communism, our embassy was over-run and hostages taken, and still we lay on the sofa moaning.

After almost twenty years of war in Vietnam, the American people had simply had enough.  The people didn’t need Walter Cronkite to explain it to them; they had seen it with their own eyes.  They’d seen the massive investment of blood and treasure in South Vietnam all designed to make that part of the world better and free.  They’d also seen the results on April 30, 1975 when Saigon fell to the communists.  It left American feeling worn out, ineffective; and sadly unable to keep its word.

This was the beginning of the Vietnam hangover.  In 1975, Americans stumbled into their living rooms and said “things got a little crazy last night….did we fight a protracted counter-insurgency in SE Asia last night?  God….what was I thinking?  Nation-building too?  I must be insane.”

Don’t get me wrong – I agree with the assessment of the Vietnam War I read in the pages of the National Review in the 1980s.  Namely, that the Vietnam War was a noble cause and “America’s most idealistic” war (wish I could remember the date of that issue of NR but I’m too lazy to research it).  Yes, but it was also a failure.

By 1975 Americans wanted nothing to do with war.  I can remember watching television footage of returning POWs , my mother crying, and it felt an awful lot like the United States had lost a war.  The people elected Jimmy Carter president and they wanted to be left alone, on the couch (which is where our economy slumbered from 1976 –1980 as well, but that is another story).  In the Carter years, there was a lot of talk about the end of American greatness and reaching an accommodating agreement with the most evil regime of the 20th century:  the USSR.  In other words, “America the Hung-Over” was not really America.

Enter Reagan, who led a monumental rebuilding of American self-esteem in the 1980s to get America moving again.  Even during the Reagan years, when his popularity soared, the American people were reflexively opposed to committing ground combat forces to battle.  Political scientists called it the Vietnam Syndrome – a fear that domestic opposition would make it impossible for America to ever act militarily.

It was only after the Gipper successfully got the economy working again (off the sofa and into the gym!), faced down the commies and won the Cold War, all while notching some notable military successes (Grenada and Libya), that the American people were willing to consider a return to an active and engaged foreign policy backed by military might.

By 1991, Americans vigorously supported President Bush as he deployed a massive force to expel Iraq from Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm.  President Bush had lived through the Vietnam hangover years.  He had also fully accepted and understood the Weinberger Doctrine.  In 100 hours, the coalition forces led by the American military had achieved their objective and it was time to come home.  Oh sure, there would be follow on forces and no fly-zones, but there would be no hangover.

America remained active throughout the 1990s, and with the exception of President Clinton’s ill-advised foray into nation building in Somalia, there were no hangovers.  That Somalia headache cleared up when President Clinton gave the American people a little of the hair of the dog that bit them – namely, a very successful 75-day air campaign against Serbia.  Headache gone.

It seemed that America had finally learned its lesson.  In 2000, President George W. Bush was elected promising a foreign policy that used force only in our national interest, and specifically stated “we don’t do nation building” during his campaign for the White House.  In other words, America was glad to show up at the party and have some beer and wine – but forget the hard stuff.  That stuff will rot your gut and destroy your national health.


The attack on America on September 11, 2001 did not come to an America on the sofa; quite the opposite.  America in 2001 was a confident engaged nation with a people who were not about to take crap from anyone.  The one certainty on that dark day in September was this:  the American military was going to make someone pay, and pay dearly.  The American people were fully on-board with the idea of leveling buildings all over the Middle East.  They were on board with crushing the Taliban and sure, why not smack around those clowns in Iraq  (and anyone else who looked at us funny) too?

It was only when President Bush and his team ignored the lessons of history; only when they forgot about “we don’t do nation-building:’ only when they broke out the hard stuff and started believing that the United States could turn a culturally deficient, illiterate, stone-aged and barbaric region to western-styled democracy that things got out of hand.

There was no “get in and get out approach.”  Rather than having a few drinks and hitting the sack by midnight, the USA decided to stay at the party way too long.  When someone broke out the whiskey, bourbon, and tequila (aka nation-building) there was the United States, glass in hand.  So for the better part of a decade, the American people have been part of a nation-building fantasy that is going nowhere.  This was an epic bender – a really self-destructive bit of vanity.

And yes, Americans are waking up with a massive Middle Eastern hangover and once again fighting nausea and asking themselves “did we invade and try to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan last night?  God, why didn’t we leave at midnight?  Where are my slippers?  I feel like hell.  Nation-building….again?  What is wrong with me?”


Nation-building is a fool’s errand.  The idea that if the United States can build enough schools, hospitals and roads in Afghanistan and Iraq – then the terrorists will lay down arms and will love us – is a foolish idea.  America has spent years, and billions of dollars, and most tragically the lives of great Americans, trying to get Afghanistan out of the 9th century.  The American people are not dumb – they know it is not working at all.  They would have been much happier had we knocked a lot of stuff down, killed the people that needed killing, and come home; in bed by midnight.

Which brings us to today – and yes we have one hell of a hangover.  We are curled up on the sofa, with a huge headache.  We are listless and thirsty, and we are too tired to even find the clicker so we can change the television channel.  So, we see on the news our President and congressional leaders who are half-heartedly asking us to get off the sofa and take on the Syrian challenge.  And all we keep thinking is this:

“Seriously?!  Maybe you haven’t heard yet, but we are never drinking again.”


The American people are tired, not of war, but of impossible missions.  They will support military action in our nation’s defense.  They will support eliminating brutal dictators and evil regimes.

The American people are good and decent.  They will get over this hangover and rouse themselves again.  But jeesh, do you think we could all finally agree to knock off the hard stuff?  Nation-building is just not an effective foreign policy approach.

Toughness, compassion, holding bad guys accountable, crushing anyone who messes with us?  The American people will always be on board with those things.  But please, don’t make them stay up all night pounding Nation-Builder’s Whiskey.

-cj cheetham

Copyright © 2013 cjcheetham

The Weinberger doctrine:

  1. The United States should not commit forces to combat unless the vital national interests of the United States or its allies are involved.
  2. U.S. troops should only be committed wholeheartedly and with the clear intention of winning. Otherwise, troops should not be committed.
  3. U.S. combat troops should be committed only with clearly defined political and military objectives and with the capacity to accomplish those objectives.
  4. The relationship between the objectives and the size and composition of the forces committed should be continually reassessed and adjusted if necessary.
  5. U.S. troops should not be committed to battle without a “reasonable assurance” of the support of U.S. public opinion and Congress.
  6. The commitment of U.S. troops should be considered only as a last resort.

The Leader’s Code

How good leaders lead.

A couple weeks ago I found myself in my home office looking through dusty old books on political theory.  Eventually I made my way to The Defender of Peace by Marsilio de Padua, a political tract written in 1324.  This isn’t an essay about Marsilio, but when I was re-reading the Defender of Peace I came across a great deal of hand-written notes in the margins.  The thoughts I’d formed that first time I had read Marsilio’s ideas on civil society.

I am a lifelong margin scratcher.  There is hardly a book I own in which I haven’t written commentary.  I’m not sure why but I started to go through a lot of books in my office – looking for my notes that I had written (to whom?).  It was during that mining operation that I came across this, written in my own hand, squeezed in the margin of a book:

“The Leader’s Code!  How good leaders lead”

My notes were scrawled (almost illegibly) in pencil and then an arrow pointed to a circled phrase.

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.    

“Yes,” I said firmly, “that IS the leader’s code.”


Cracking the Leader’s Code:


A leader should never put his own desires ahead of the mission, the team, or other team members.  In other words, a leader should strive to have relationships built on mutual trust with his boss, his peers, and his subordinates.

You may ask, but isn’t ambition critical to the success of any individual and for that matter any group or nation?

Yes.  But the key point in the Leader’s Code is the modifying term.  The problem is not ambition but rather selfish ambition.

A leader should never engage in selfish ambition.  In my time in the military I have seen selfish ambition everywhere.  Selfish ambition is characterized by a boss who adopts this attitude:

“I am going to get ahead no matter how hard I have to make you work.”

These are the leaders who take credit from subordinates, undermine peers, or spend ridiculous amounts of time lobbying their boss for recognition or “the next great position” in the organization.

Healthy ambition is when someone says “I’m going to work my hardest to achieve a goal.”  Selfish ambition states “no matter what happens I better get ahead because I am so special.”


Closely related to selfish ambition is conceit.  The dictionary describes conceit as an excessively favorable opinion of one’s own ability, importance, wit, etc.  In other words, the leader who operates from a position of conceit is the last guy you want to work for.

The conceited leader thinks that he has such remarkable ability that he doesn’t really need input from the little people.  Sure, he’ll allow you to voice an opinion in a staff meeting because he read in a leadership book one time that he should let his subordinates feel empowered; but he has no real intention of listening to you because he is much smarter than you.  How do you think he got this job?  He’s supernaturally talented, that’s how!

The self-importance of the conceited leader will also be evident.  The conceited leader is always acutely aware of where he is sitting at the conference table (why am I not closer to the boss?); he is singularly focused on who talks the longest to the boss at a dinner party.

People who work for the conceited leader will know what kind of pens he likes, what soda he drinks, and they will run themselves ragged trying to make sure everything is just right.  In other words, the conceited leader is a boorish, self-important snob.  He expects to fly first class, have someone clean up after him, and he’ll need lots of minions around tending to his needs.  He also has a tendency to make decisions based on what is good for him rather than the team.

Sadly, conceited leaders seem to be everywhere.


Humility comes from a Latin word that carries a few meanings.  Obviously, humility means humble but it also connotes “from the earth” or “grounded.”   To put that simpler, humility for a leader means: remember where you came from.

I’ve been blessed to hold many leadership jobs in my time in the military – but I started out 29 years ago as a Private.  I’ve peeled potatoes; I’ve cleaned toilets.  At other times in my life, I’ve been flat broke.  I’ve been lonely and I’ve been hopeless.  When I look at my military career, I am very thankful for the success I have had.  If someone had told me when I was a Private that someday I would be a Lieutenant Colonel and a Squadron Commander, I would not have believed it.  I try really hard to never forget where I came from; because when I was a nobody, I still thought I was a somebody.

And yet, I look around the military and more often than not I run into senior leaders who have literally forgotten where they came from. There are an awful lot of senior officers who think the reason they got where they are is because they are special.  These officers have forgotten where they came from; they forget the breaks they got – or the help they received.   They have no time for the “little people;” no respect for the janitor, and no patience for the mistakes made by lieutenants.  I’ve heard Colonels say outrageous things like “the enlisted force can’t problem solve; we need the officers to do that.”


Only when you remember where you came from can you fully implement the principle of counting “others as more important than yourselves.”  No, I am not talking about how you let the troops eat before you do at the squadron Thanksgiving meal.

I am talking about adopting a real attitude of becoming a servant-leader.  One who understands that the organization will meets its goals only when you view each individual as a person – not as a cog in a machine.  The people who work for you have real hopes.  They have real desires and they want to live a full life where they are able to use their talents at work to achieve something great.  Sometimes your subordinates will need encouragement, correction, help, or praise.  No matter what they need, they will always deserve your respect.  They will always deserve to be treated as an individual.

I wish I could tell you that there are many leaders who are servant-leaders, but that is simply not the case.  What I have typically witnessed is the exact opposite – leaders who NEVER count others as more important than themselves.  These are the Leaders who rarely listen to their subordinates and who hate disagreement.  These are the leaders who threaten their subordinates.  These are the leaders who deny opportunity to subordinates because it would be an inconvenience to the boss.


America was founded by people who understood the Leader’s Code.  So, here’s my challenge to leaders:  This week try to implement a little bit of the Leader’s Code.  I often wonder how great the USAF could be with a strong adherence to the Leader’s Code. How great could our schools be if guided by the Leader’s Code?  How good and decent would law enforcement be if our police officers lived the Leader’s Code?  Dare I dream of a government committed to the Leader’s Code?

This week, don’t spend any time working on your next job; don’t angle on how you are going to get recognized by your boss.  Instead, talk to your subordinates.  Get to know the troops, and help them to identify and achieve their goals.

What you will find is this – there is an incredible amount of talent on your team.

Then it won’t be so hard to be humble.

-cj cheetham

Copyright © 2013 cjcheetham

There are probably some of you who recognize “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.”  Yes – it is from the Bible – Philippians chapter 2, verse 3. 

Yup, I scratch in the margins of my Bible all the time.