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? Here’s a few.
Great ideas alone are not enough. They must be matched with a change strategy and skills that recognize and account for the reality on the ground. This is what “punched me in the mouth” in Mexico. I was not naïve about the justice system, the complex web of influence and corruption woven by the drug cartels, and the complicated relationship between the US and Mexican governments. However, seeing how this plays out in the lived reality of change agents was humbling in the extreme. If I and others, were going to a better support for them, we had a lot of learning ahead of us – less lecture-giving and more listening.
All change is destabilizing. Even the best ideas deployed toward a universally recognized problem will face resistance. That resistance has little to do with merits of the new ideas. It arises simply because the organization or community has grown accustomed to the way things are. Their relationships and roles have evolved to accommodate and survive in the current reality. In the story above, this is what the AG meant when he described the delicate balance of relationships between change agents, government, drug cartels, and the wide spectrum of regular folks caught in a variety of compromised positions between them.
A few courageous individuals can make all the difference. You might not be rewarded for doing the right thing. You might not get “the credit” at the end of the day. You might never get to see the end result of your efforts. However, the number of people that quietly told me how inspired they were by this official, his love of his people, and his willingness to risk his own life for their sake – was a reminder that every conflict (or change process) needs a few people who are willing to be the first over the wall and out of the trench. Others will follow.
In boxing, this is what they call “heart” – the ability to reach deep inside, find your courage, face the onslaught coming at you, and keep moving forward when all seems futile. It can’t be taught. You have to find it within yourself.
Reality is a tricky thing. Those of us with big ideas need to be able to look through and beyond the world as it is in order to see what it could be. We also need to be clear-eyed realists about the implications of change, and our willingness to face resistance and persist over the long-haul.
Then, like this Attorney General, we might find we’re ready to toe-the-line in the middle of the ring, dig deep, and find the heart we all need to move toward fear.
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