Updated: Jun 17
“Everyone has a plan, until they get punched in the mouth.”
Truer words were never spoken. In this case the philosopher was former heavyweight champion of the world, “Iron” Mike Tyson. In a pre-fight interview a reporter was recounting the preparation and planning his opponent had logged to get ready to face Tyson – a nightmarishly brutal fighter known for quick finishes and crushing the dreams (and jaws) of rivals. The quote became immortalized because it struck on a basic human truth.
Having plans and clever ideas is all well and good. But how will you react when those plans are shattered by reality, events outside of your control, or this guy?
Here’s a story about getting a crushing left-hook from reality.
It had been an incredible speaking and training tour. For two weeks, I visited various parts of Mexico giving talks and training on conflict and justice reform thanks to funding provided by the US State Department. I met with lawyers, villagers, local indigenous elders, social workers, and government officials. I had been to Mexico on a similar tour a few years earlier, and other parts of Central and South America many times.
During trips like this, especially in Mexico, the level hospitality and generosity is always humbling. The many people I met treated me alternately like family or even as a dignitary – whether I deserved it or not. If you’re not careful, you can develop an inordinately high opinion of yourself.
I was on the last leg of my trip, which culminated in a panel discussion along with the Attorney General (AG) of the Mexican State in which the event was taking place. He was gracious and made time for all of the presenters, visiting “experts”, and academics. At the end of event, he invited several of us to lunch.
The setting and spread were like something out of a dream. We were dining on the beach under a white canopied tent. The waves rolled gently a few yards away. An old man leisurely walked his burro past us in the sand. It all felt at once novel and timeless. I couldn’t help but think of one of my favorite childhood books, Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go.
Then, as I looked around the scene under the tent, a few realizations punctured my romantic musings.
From the moment we left the venue, during our walk, discussion on the beach, and now sitting at lunch, I noticed the same five to six very large and serious looking gentleman following us everywhere.
They uniformly sported military-style haircuts, dark sunglasses, and unseasonably heavy jackets. Under each jacket was a conspicuously large bulge – obviously a sub machine gun or some other variety of short-barreled rifle.
As we ate, they ringed our table – completely uninterested in the beauty of the setting or conversation. They expertly scanned the perimeter around us and cast an evaluative eye at anyone moving within range of our meal.
It also added another dimension to the choice of location. The beach was beautiful. It also gave our security detail a much easier perimeter to secure – open sight lines in all directions, and no doubt a second layer of security near the buildings and parking lot.
The security presence was at once comforting and unsettling. Anyone who might show up with ill-intent would no doubt be looking for the AG and not the guests. Still, the thought of going down as “collateral damage" during a hit on a public official, however remote the possibility, was something I never considered in my career until now.
During a lull in the conversation, I leaned over to ask the AG, “We’ve been surrounded by your security detail since we left the venue. Does your position put you in this much danger on a regular basis?”
He smiled as one might smile at a small child. Whatever I knew about justice reform, I obviously understood very little about actually reforming it in the conditions under which he worked.
He explained, “It’s not my position as Attorney General that puts me at risk, per se. It’s that any change in how the system operates is potentially threatening to the drug cartels in particular. I invited you, these guests, and local leaders to discuss nothing but change for the past few days. Change of any kind… can be a very dangerous business here.”
He then looked more somberly and added, “You ask if the intense security is needed? Two weeks before you arrived, the Attorney General in the state next to this one, was assassinated. His agenda for change was less ambitious than what we’ve been discussing.” He ended with a brief nod and upraised eyebrow as if to say, “Yes, that’s the reality here.”
He went on to describe the massive additional challenges. In a place where drug cartels often had better funding, manpower, and resources than government, allegiances were rarely clear or fixed. Even those who were friends and legitimate “forces for good” often found reasons to collaborate with the cartels here and there – in ways large and small.
Others were truly and fully in the employ of the cartels without qualification. They might be a police officer, legislator, judge, or a federal cabinet official. One could never be fully confident about who one was talking to and for whom they actually worked.
Later in the day, someone else took me aside to remind me how lucky I was to have spent time with this AG. They truly believed that he was interested in real reform; that he was one of the good guys.
I now understood why they looked sad as they said this. To be a good guy in this environment, a white hat in a land of dark gray, was not typically the path to longevity – one way or another. Never-the-less, he was a source of hope for many.
So, what’s the lesson here for those of us who seek to convert expertise into influence and make change on the ground in any setting? Her