Sunday, November 24, 2013

Enemies: Feeding Them, Loving Them, Working with Them

I have spent much of my life living in the land of enemies, working with enemies (who turn out to be friends), and learning the languages of enemies. I have been reminded of this quite vividly during the month of June and especially this past month.

Our deck is quiet now. A week ago Saturday, however, it was home to running children and feasting parents. Visiting from one of our out-of-town branches was a colleague who is moving on to a new job and with whom I have had a wonderful working relationship these past two years. It wasn't always that way, though. My relationship with Walsh began in a very adversarial way. We served on the same committee related to providing a specific service to a group of clients. The clients were mine; the service was his division's. Unfortunately, I disagreed with some aspects of the way in which the service was provided and conducted some research on the effectiveness of the service. That research showed that the service was ineffective, but Walsh did not want to accept that and kept pushing his personal experience as the deciding factor in how things were to be done. I actually had greater experience than he did, but he did not know it, and I felt awkward about pointing that out either publicly or personally. I thought that the research results should speak for themselves. Ultimately, I talked to Walsh's supervisor and got the changes made that I felt were needed. Two years later, new research showed that the changes had produced much better results than had the initial service. Obviously, this was not the best way to win friends and influence people, as the saying goes.

Walsh ultimately moved on from that division, and life became calmer. Then, I learned we were being assigned a new project and, surprise!, the contact person with whom we had to work was in our Washington office, with the program being headed by Walsh, who had transferred there recently. Ulp! This was a very visible project and it had to go well. I decided to approach Walsh from the view that the old position and work was in the past and not related to the current work so we were "new" colleagues in this new endeavor. It worked. He had responsibility for weekly reports, and, while I initially had been reporting directly to the CEO on this project, once Walsh became the nominal head, I began filtering all my reports directly to him, and he would combine them with his own input. It was easier for the CEO that way. Everything worked smoothly. He let bygones remain in the past, as did I, and, perhaps not surprisingly, over time, we became very supportive colleagues, especially after we had taken a few trips together associated with this project to a few troubled areas of the world (e.g., the Middle East).

Walsh retired at the end of June and came back to his earlier haunts to say good-bye to old friends. I invited him to a BBQ at our house. At the end of the BBQ, he told me, with some barely restrained emotion, that he had truly enjoyed working with me on this project and was hoping our paths would cross again. Who says enemies cannot become friends?

This scene reminded me of a similar one two decades ago. Right after the fall of the Soviet Union, I traveled to the Humanities University in Minsk, Belarus to work with the academicians from the Belarus Academy of Sciences. While there, the president and vice president of the university took me to dinner. The VP, it turns out, was an officer in the Red Army, a specialist in American order of battle, at the same time that I was an officer in the US army, a specialist in Soviet order of battle. Counterparts! It left him speechless and attentive. At the farewell party thrown in my honor, he was unusually attentive, complimentary, and social, in contradiction to his typical introversion. Someone asked me what I had done to him. I said, "I did nothing to him, but he took an enemy to dinner." (The whole story, along with some other "enemy" stories, can be found here: Three Vignettes and One Thought about Enemies.

When I defended my dissertation years ago in Moscow, I ended the defense, as expected, with personal words. The words I used, though, were not expected, and I have heard that people who were there still cite them today. This was just weeks after the fall of the Soviet Union; most of my time in the USSR was spent there during the Cold War. (I can truly say that I am a veteran of the Cold War.) What I said was: "Twenty years ago, I came to this country to look upon the face on the enemy. However, in twenty years, I have found only friends."

My favorite movie of all time is probably not nearly as well known as many other sci-fi movies, but it is indeed a good one. The name is Enemy Mine. In it, Dennis Quaid plays an Earther in a dogfight with a Drak who crashes together with his enemy on a remote, inhospitable, marginally inhabited planet. They learn each other's language, work together to survive, and when the Drak, a hermaphrodite, dies in childbirth, Quaid raises the child. It is a very touching movie. If you have not seen it, I recommend renting it.

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