Friday, August 1, 2014

A Simple But Powerful Lesson

You may have seen a picture I posted on Facebook recently of my elementary school PE teacher, Emilio Mendillo, and me- - -together again after almost 60 years. It was a moving and very emotional moment for me and my comments under the post reflected as much. Here’s why.
In the fall of 1956 I was a 6th grader at Colbert Elementary School in Hollywood, Florida. The school Principal, Marseline S. West, had hired a 27 or 28 year old ex-GI as the Physical Education (PE) instructor for all classes- -a really progressive concept at the time. The ex-GI, who had been stationed in post WWII Italy, was a young Italian-American fellow- - -Emilio Mendillo- - -or Coach Mendillo as we all called him. Whatever the sport Coach Mendillo could easily teach eager young minds and bodies the fundamentals and the rules. Basketball, baseball, football, kickball, dodgeball, volleyball, track and field- - -he knew each sport and took great delight in teaching all of them to kids who thrived on the participation and the competition. Over the years he would directly and indirectly touch thousands of young lives in that town.

I don’t know what prompted Coach Mendillo to do so but early in the school year he decided to put together an elite group of boys to form a military style “Drill Team”. I was one of those chosen. He would teach us how to march and drill, just like the soldiers in the US Army. As he did with all things, he first explained why “marching in cadence” was important (an efficient, effective way of moving bodies of people, on foot, from one place to another without chaos or incident) and then demonstrated the fundamentals of marching and of obeying “marching orders”.  Understanding and executing marching commands is NOT as easy as it looks- -timing is everything- -but within a few hours we had the basics down solidly and it wasn’t long before we were a cohesive team capable of proficiently displaying the intricacies of “close order drill” in public.  In fact, we got to be good enough to march in the Fiesta Tropicale Parade that year and win wide spread recognition for our school- - -Colbert Elementary. When the school year ended in June of 1957 I would not see Coach Mendillo again until July of 2014. But that didn’t mean we lost touch with each other over that span.  

Coach Mendillo, while stationed in Italy, had met and married a beautiful young Italian woman- -Dolores—who was the product of a classic European education and who, years later would be my Latin teacher at SBHS. Through her and through her daughter, a friend of my youngest sister, The Coach and I each had some idea of what was going on with the other during the intervening years. More recently, social media has allowed for periodic updates- -each with the other- -through mutual friends. 

As I was driving back from Hollywood to Tampa a couple of days ago- -a 5 hour trip- -I had a lot of time to reflect on the re-union with Coach Mendillo (arranged by his daughter Laura) and it occurred to me that the lessons he taught us as 11 year old schoolboys in a drill team were, in fact, the lessons that stuck with me and guided me through most of my adult life. Let me explain. 

When the “troops” are assembled and in formation the day’s objectives and the goals of the march about to be undertaken are shared with everyone. Then, when it is evident that everyone has a clear picture of the task at hand and it is time to begin, a very simple but powerful command is given: Forwaaaaard. . .March.  The first word- -forward-is loudly emphasized and drawn out in order to alert the troops that they are about to be given an executable command. The second word- -MARCH- -is barked out tersely and with maximum emphasis. At that command each man in the ranks takes that first step forward and immediately becomes aware of what each man in front of him, behind him and either side of him is doing. Teamwork and discipline become the watchwords of the day. And it was this ability to give, take and execute marching orders, taught to me by Coach Mendillo, that allowed me to secure a leadership role in my own US Army basic training days several years later. 

 While on the tedious drive home and giving thought to those lessons learned from Coach Mendillo it dawned on me that in “marching” as with life in general, the solution to the task at hand always starts with, “FORWARD” MARCH. It NEVER begins with “To the left, march” or “to the right, march” or even to the rear, march”. FORWARD, march. ALWAYS forward. It was then that I realized I had applied those same lessons, learned from Coach Mendillo as an 11 year old, to a long and reasonably successful business career especially in those assignments where I was mandated to create change from stagnation, bring order out of chaos or create an achievable vision of the future. The solution was always the same: Assemble the troops; look for those who already knew how to “march in cadence”(understood the concepts of teamwork and discipline)  and make them leaders; formulate goals and objectives of the “march”, share that vision with every single “trooper” making sure they too had a clear vision of the desired end result, then finally giving a simple but powerful command: FORWAAAAARD, MARCH!!

Thank you Coach Mendillo- -now 85 years young- - for that simple but valuable life lesson. Thank you for teaching me that even the shortest journey starts with but one step . . . FORWARD.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014



In an odd turn of events I find myself in total disagreement with both Liberals and Conservatives about how to re-act to the downing of MA 17 last week in Ukraine by Russian separatist forces and what our response should be to Vladimir Putin’s recent foreign policy of taking what he wants by aggression.  Liberals, to no one’s surprise, back either a policy of strict economic sanctions or one of “turn the other cheek”, be a friend and eventually he’ll stop. Conservatives, also as expected, are screaming for a show of force and military strength. Both groups, in my opinion, are completely wrong.

As anyone can tell from the photos of Putin (carefully staged and released by the state-controlled Russian media) showing him shirtless and engaged in so-called “manly pursuits” the guy has a HUGE ego. Reading his speeches and analyzing his actions clearly paint a picture of a man who sees himself as a world leader, a statesman and the George Washington of the “New Russia”. He believes he is invincible because his ego will not allow him to believe anything else and because the leaders of the rest of the world have been spineless in dealing with him. The President of the US, Barack Obama, has been notably and most particularly feckless in his dealings with Putin at a time when US leadership is sorely needed. But the POTUS could change all this quickly by showing the same kind of leadership demonstrated by John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan in confronting Russian aggression. And if I were Obama’s Chief-of-Staff I would insist he do so by delivering a speech at the UN and calling Putin out in front of a world body. It would sound something like this.

Friday July 25, 2014

10:00 AM

The UN General Assembly

New York


POTUS stands at the dais of the UN and welcomes those in attendance as required by protocol. He pauses for a moment (for dramatic effect), shuffles his “notes”, discards them with flourish then proceeds to speak.

“I came here today with the original intent of addressing this world body about several current global events. And if you were to see the notes I just threw away you would know that was the text they contained. But as I rode here from my hotel I changed my mind about the content and purpose of my speech this morning. Yes, I still want to address this body as a whole but in so doing I want my message to be unmistakably targeted to someone who isn’t here- -Vladimir Putin. So, Ambassador Churkin would you please dispatch someone from your delegation to phone President Putin and let him know that as I stand at this podium I am talking directly to him.” 

POTUS shifts, smiles and acknowledges the sea of flashes from the cameras of the startled world press and cups his ear to take in the growing murmur of the assembled diplomats. Then he continues. 

“Recently the world was shocked and saddened by the downing of Malaysian Air Flight 17 by Russian separatists in Ukraine. 298 innocent people who had nothing to do with the politics of that region died. And why did they die? They died because you, Mr. Putin, did not respect the laws of international sovereignty and took Crimea by force. Then while signaling that your designs did not stop there you installed a proxy army of unschooled partisans inside Ukraine and sent your military advisors to arm and train them. The problem is that your advisors and trainers made two errors with the proxy army you installed in sovereign Ukraine territory: They over armed them and under trained them. Thus the blood of those 298 people is on your hands as head of an aggressive Russian state.

By now Mr. Putin, as you watch from your office in the Kremlin, you are probably angrily sneering, “What hypocrisy coming from a man who leads a nation which has armies stationed in Afghanistan, Japan, South Korea, Okinawa, The Philippines  and virtually every western European country. . .how dare he lecture me about a comparatively small “proxy army” in Ukraine!”

But consider this: in Afghanistan as it was in Iraq, Russia did little to stem the forces of global radicalism- -forces that are as much a threat to the Russian people as they are to the people of the western democracies. And so it was left to a coalition of the willing led by the US to try to turn that tide. And what have you done during that period? You’ve armed those radicals and their sponsor states like Iran and North Korea with the ability to make and deliver atomic weapons ignoring the fact that in so doing you are probably handing the rope to your own executioners.  Also consider that every other country in which the US has military bases, the people of those countries are politically free, secure and economically prosperous. Yet, almost unanimously the former Soviet states are seeking alliances with the western democracies because they want that same political freedom, security and prosperity. What does that tell you about the message and the universal needs of people as well as the intent of America and the world’s great democracies? 

President Putin I know that you have a strong desire to be considered a world leader, a great statesman and the founding father of the New Russia. So, I am calling you out here and now. I am issuing a “put-up or shut-up, yes or no” challenge. Will you join the leaders and statesmen of the western democracies in working jointly to stem the tide of radicalism? Will you stop arming proxy armies and client trouble makers? Will you give up your policy of aggression for one of international détente? Will you put Iran and North Korea on notice that you will no longer bankroll their subversion, sponsorships of terrorism and dreams of world domination?  Will you become a true leader, a respected statesman and a founding figure? The answer to each of these questions is a simple “yes” or “no”- -“Da or Nyet”. Any other response of any sort or explanation is unacceptable. So Mr. Putin, what is your answer? The world waits? It’s your move. Pick up the phone, call Ambassador Churkin who is sitting just a few feet away from me and tell him to stand up and say, “Da”.  If you do, and demonstrate it, the world will start to change tomorrow. If you don’t the continuing danger and chaos will be on you. It will be your legacy. Yes or No? 

POTUS leaves the podium and for several seconds there is a  stunned and complete silence in the Assembly Chamber. Then, one by one, each delegation stands and applauds loudly. The applause is broken by the ring of a telephone in the Russian delegation. Ambassador Churkin walks to the podium and utters one word. . . 

OK, so I’ve put forth an improbable scenario. But the improbability is there only because unlike Kennedy and Reagan who were true leaders and can easily be imagined delivering such a speech, Barack Obama is unlikely to have such courage. After all, what are we expecting from a man with such a paucity of experience and a scarcity of leadership skills on his résumé not to mention a complete lack of testicular fortitude.
And meanwhile, Rome burns.