Alastair Luft’s Blog


Writer, Know Thyself: On The Importance of Having Your S*!T Wired Tight

The night I went to jail was probably when I first knew I had a drinking problem. Sounds stupid to see it written like that, but let me tell you that up until then, I thought I was like any other junior infantry officer who liked to work hard and play hard.

I remember (some of) the details well.

​I arrived in Graz, Austria on Thursday, 7 Sep 2001 to participate in a NATO Partnership for Peace exercise. The exercise didn’t start until Monday, 10 September, so our team had the weekend off in Graz. On 8 September, we went out on the town and on 9 September I woke up in a cell wondering how the hell I’d gotten there. I spent the next 36 hours piecing together what I’d done (assaulted a police officer who’d been trying to get my dumb, drunken ass back to my hotel) and working my way through the Austrian penal system until my trial. On 10 September, I shuffled into a courtroom in arm and leg shackles (seems a bit much in retrospect…) where I was fined, then confined to barracks until I could be sent back to Canada. Which, incidentally, always makes for an interesting story when I recount that on 9/11, I’d just gotten out of jail.

Guess what didn’t make the list?
On the plus side, my time in an Austrian prison forced me to be up front with myself about my limitations, especially those that were impacting my ability to be a competent leader. I don’t consider myself an alcoholic, but there are definitely situations where it’s easy for things to get out of hand. As a result, an older (and wiser?) me makes sure to avoid those situations, even if it limits my social interaction, a small price to pay. I know my limitations better now, and I’m constantly trying to improve them, which is no accident – it’s a principle of leadership I learned in the military, and I think it’s equally applicable to success in writing.
Achieve Professional Competence and Pursue Self-Improvement
For those who remember the old Canadian Forces Principles of Leadership, they’ve been updated. The current first principle encompasses two of the earlier principles, ‘achieve professional competence,’ and ‘know your strengths and limitations and pursue self-improvement.’ For what it’s worth, I liked the previous breakdown better, but it’s easy to see how these two concepts are related.
Why is professional competence important as a leader? Because leadership starts with the leader – they must master the competencies relevant to their role if they have any hope of influencing others. In other words, before trying to influence others, an effective leader has to make sure their own shit is wired tight. ​

Competencies are the skills, techniques, attitudes, and knowledge needed for a role or position. They can cover a variety of domains, to include knowledge, cognitive ability, social capacity, communication, personality traits, and professional motivation and values.

All of these traits are important and contribute to a total leader. An officer might be the best tactician since Rommel, but if they’re a social hand grenade, that will inhibit their full potential a la some destructive personality traits and social capacities.

Linking this to the investigation of writers as leaders, how does this principle apply? Let’s break down the constituent parts.

Knowledge and skills comprise the toolbox of any professional, and in writing this would consist of the aspects of storytelling; pace, language, point of view, grammar, genre etc. Cognitive ability is also applicable to a writer, although perhaps not in the military context of switching between positions. Still, a writer must be able to keep a pulse on what’s going on, knowing their audience and following developments in the industry.

Personality traits are also important, especially when working within a small team, such as the editing, marketing and publishing components. Does a writer have the flexibility of thought to take criticism, then adapt and overcome? Or keep pursuing professional development so their work is constantly improving? This is where being honest with oneself comes into play. Communication as a competency is an easy one, partially dovetailing into knowledge and skills (writing is communication after all), but clearly it goes beyond this to include all the interpersonal verbal skills required to work in a small team.

Of all the competencies, professional motivation and values is the one I have the most trouble applying because I’m not convinced that writing is a profession, at least by the normal definitions. Sure, it meets a lot of the criteria, but some are problematic. Is there a professional association in control of the profession? Not really. Are there agreed upon performance standards for admission to the profession? Kind of, I guess, if you view the marketplace as the standard.

Notwithstanding the academic argument, I think we need to take a broader look of writing as a profession, not applying standard criteria, but perhaps Steven Pressfield’s criteria of what constitutes a professional. As a writer, are you committed to having the best book possible, to improving craft and consistently doing the work? If so, then arguably professional motivation and values are at play.

Ultimately, whether soldier or writer, the most relevant part of achieving professional competence is simply being a professional. As Mr. Pressfield itemizes in The War of Art, a professional shows up every day, stays on the job all day, and is committed for the long haul (amongst other things).

Bottom line, if a prospective writer was starting out and wanted some established principles to live by, they could do far worse than to use the principle of achieving professional competence and pursuing self-improvement. Even if your improvement starts out by making a commitment not to get drunk and go to jail in a foreign country, it’s still a start point. Rome wasn’t built in a day, right?

Until next week, when we’ll look at whether the leadership principle of Clarifying Objectives and Intent applies to writing.

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