“Toughness” is an adjective that gets thrown around a great deal, particularly in politics. Many public figures go out of their way to associate themselves with “tough,” “independent” stances and hard-line foreign policy, and each successive generation paints themselves tougher than the last. In his time, the first President Bush was the hero of the Gulf War, but in his son’s time, he was the man who didn’t have the stuff to invade Baghdad. Sarah Palin, the conservative “Mama Grizzly,” is one coat of lipstick away from being a pit bull. According to her.
I’m about mid-way through Edmund Morris‘s first volume, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. When reading this book, it becomes instantly apparent that modern conservatives who claim Teddy as a role model don’t understand the man. They simply see in their minds the famous painting of Teddy on horseback. They have no conception that, in addition to his adventures as a “Rough Rider,” he was a bookish intellectual, an eastern fop, a naturalist geek, an insufferable elitist of the first degree, a moralist serving the God of noblesse oblige, and most notably an anti-corporate reformer and social progressive. No modern conservative would come within fifty feet of the man were he living today.
But Teddy was tough. He was tough in a way that seems like it’s a class apart from figures of the modern era, save perhaps John McCain‘s imprisonment in North Vietnam. He had a toughness that most of his contemporaries had to look twice to see, because you couldn’t see it at first glance. A spindly, sickly child, he responded by toughening his body through punishing exercise. As a young Assemblyman, he annoyed and cajoled his way to prominence within his party. In his mid-twenties, he lost his young wife and his mother on the same day, and suppressed those emotions so thoroughly that he nearly never spoke of his first wife again. It wasn’t until he exiled himself to the Badlands and shot a Rocky Mountain Grizzly square between the eyes that he felt sufficiently purged to return to his eastern life. Most of us go into metaphorical exile in order to confront demons…Teddy did it literally.
Reading some of these passages on Roosevelt makes me realize exactly how little energy and drive I apply to life in comparison to this Irresistible Force of lore. It makes me value the man for his toughness. But it also makes me wonder why I admire this man, but I fail to admire the modern-day brush-clearers and moose hunters who display similar ambition, egotism and stubbornness. I want to distill the virtue of toughness, and separate it away from the posturing and bravado that usually passes for it. I want to be able to separate truly tough people from the many who pretend to be tough.
When I plug “tough” into dictionary.com, I get descriptions like, “sturdy,” “hardy,” “capable of great endurance,” “not easily influenced,” “unyielding,” and “hardened.” It makes me think of the description in Morris’s book of the two “whipcord” cowhands who ran Roosevelt’s Maltese Cross Ranch. When you think of someone who’s tough, you typically think of a quiet, steady-eyed, independent, strong-willed person who is the most dominant force in the room. But some of these adjectives can be deceiving. Have you ever known an “unyielding, strong-willed” person who was not truly tough? Of course you have. Many stubborn loud-mouths come off strong, but are completely soft on the underbelly.
I’m a big fan of the 1993 movie Tombstone, which is a character study into what makes true toughness. One great scene features Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp, confronting a bully of a card dealer played by Billy Bob Thornton. Thornton’s character seems tough. He’s a bulky loud-mouth who intimidates all the players, and routinely drives all the high-class customers out of the bar. The bar owner can’t fire him, for fear of bodily harm. So Wyatt Earp comes to town, not even carrying a gun, and he walks over and stares the dealer down. Earp taunts the dealer to draw his gun and fight him, but knows that the dealer is too cowardly to draw. Earp can see the fear in his eyes. He hits the dealer across the face, drawing blood, and still he won’t draw. In the end, Earp simply takes the dealer’s gun away from him (without resistance), takes him by the ear and throws him out of the bar.
Think for a moment about how tough people transact status. Tougher characters are high-status players. The toughest person in the room is the last one to submit to the will of others. Others may try to assert themselves above a tough person, but that person will reject the implied submission. He or she is least likely to be “made to react” by someone else’s behavior. As per our definition, they are “not easily influenced.” Do you ever imagine “tough” people as being moved to whine or complain? As being defensive? Most of the time, we see them unmoved. It takes a great force or threat to make them react.
There’s also an element of maturity to toughness. It implies that one has been hardened by experience, and has developed a certain emotional endurance. Someone once told me that a sign of maturity is whether a person can deal well with “saying ‘no’ and hearing ‘no’,” and that description applies to the tougher people that I know. They are perfectly fine existing in conflict. They have sturdy, unmovable boundaries around what they won’t do, and what they won’t accept.
Now, in my world, I see a lot of pretense to what I call “yuppie tough.” Think of the people who can recite the Gordon Gecko monologue from Wall Street, or the “coffee’s for closers” monologue from Glengarry Glen Ross. These people make “tough” decisions, but seem to make them a little too easily. When these people become CEOs, they are the first to institute lay-offs, and they never get around to looking their displaced workers in the eye. “Chainsaw-Al” Dunlap fits into this category. So do certain leaders in recent history who are quick to involve themselves in military adventurism (Roosevelt himself fits this description at times). They have accepted the rightness of their actions so absolutely (greed is good, after all), that they escape total emotional responsibility for the damage they cause (deemed “unavoidable collateral damage,” and shrugged off). But that’s not toughness per se, that’s callousness masquerading as toughness.
Contrarily, those leaders who show the most actual toughness are the ones who expose themselves to the most emotional responsibility, not the least. In a famous Harvard Business Review article called “The Hard Work of Being a Soft Manager,” William Peace tells two stories where leaders went out of their way to face the direct emotional ramifications of their decisions. In his first story, an executive was forced to lay off fifteen workers who had showed outstanding performance, but in rolls that needed to be cut loose. That executive chose to break the news himself, and listen through all the rebuke and the harsh questions that came back. In the second story, a newly installed executive worked to roll back years of antagonistic labor relations by making financial presentations directly to the union workforce, and toughing out all the acrimony that was shouted back at him. In both cases, the decision to dive straight into the mouth of the lion led to better and more trusting relations between employees and executive management.
So what is true toughness, and what is simply pretense? A fight instructor told me once that a true badass reacts by moving into the threat, when instinct would have us avoid it. Similarly, truly tough people move right into hardship and work, whereas everyone else avoids it. They’ve grown a thick skin from not only enduring hardship (whether hard times, trauma, or challenge from others), but also by refusing to be kicked around by it. They show equanimity in how they endure. This is largely a matter of attitude. Once, on a hunting trip, Roosevelt woke up before dawn to the sensation of his blanket being soaked in four inches for freezing rain. His guide was so floored by Roosevelt’s reaction that he recorded it for posterity: “By Godfrey, but this is fun!”
Their life of endurance gives them a sense of perspective – in knowing that they can survive hell and high water, the little annoyances and challenges of life are truly little. They’ve learned from experience to save their energy for a big deal – some circumstance or challenge that needs to be taught a lesson. Everything below that level is simply…comedy.
Most people think that the way to meet life with more grit is to push back more against those around you. But it’s only the “yuppie tough” who actually savor the win-lose dynamic. Tough people are usually trying to get something done, and could give a damn about the score. But if, in the midst of getting something worthwhile done, someone sets himself in the way, that person might get run over. Also, most people think it shows more grit to carry yourself with an invulnerable and ideological self-righteousness, when actually it is much harder to stand in the storm of direct criticism, emotional responsibility and self-doubt, and accept the full measure of your own fallibility.
Of the many, many people in this world who would have us know how tough they are, most of them are simply stubborn, posturing or unstable. As was the case with Roosevelt, we may have to look twice in order to notice and appreciate the real deal.
- ‘Colonel Roosevelt’: Edmund Morris’ superb account of Teddy Roosevelt’s final, feisty years (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
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