Clout or Honor?

Yesterday, a 21-year old Air National Guard member from Massachusetts was identified as the alleged leaker of classified documents that has appeared in multiple media outlets. The Airman allegedly shared these documents in a racist, sexist, and homophobic Discord chat group. A deeper dive into this group by The Washington Post shows that the Airman likely wasn’t posting the documents as some sort of premeditated plot to work with America’s adversaries, but for another reason:


What is clout? Clout is the definable level of popularity or notoriety one develops on social media. It can be measured in clicks, likes, retweets, watches, bookmarks, or whatever other metric matters to the user. “Clout-chasing” is the act of developing sharable media for the sole purpose of attaining clout, similar to what you may have known in the past as “clickbait.”

At its core, clout is just the latest, modern adaptation of humankind’s evergreen needs for belonging, acceptance, and recognition. Society recognizes certain sources of clout as admirable: awards and published works after discoveries, winning elections to public office, breaking the tape at a track race.

But there is a dark side to clout that has been on full display this week. It’s the side that seeks the ends of fame or notice or importance with little or no regard for the means. It’s how a young American from a patriotic family can allegedly spit in the face of that patriotism by illegally sharing classified documents. It is also a symptom of a much larger problem.

There are generally two sources of motivation. People are either driven by intrinsic or extrinsic motivation.

Intrinsically motivated people set goals and accomplish tasks to better themselves or achieve some standard they have set. They seek (mostly) positive, personal growth. Intrinsic motivation also isn’t limited to the individual; one can find intrinsic motivation in performing at their best to support a team. This is the core of healthy, honorable military service.

Extrinsically motivated people are not necessarily bad. In fact, we are all probably extrinsically motivated at one time or another, such as when we ask for higher pay or chase one of the sources of admirable clout mentioned above. But social media and constant connectivity has proliferated clout for clout’s sake; the means are irrelevant if the end result is a larger Twitter following, more website clicks, or more donations to a campaign or cause.

This latter concept of clout, derived from extrinsically motivated and dishonorable people, is what led to things like the January 6th insurrection, the poisoning of American political discourse, and the selling or posting of classified data.

We need to stop this trend dead in its tracks.

Clout, in and of itself, is neither a problem nor an excuse. What we must do is separate clout-chasers – those for whom attention or importance is the sole end – from those who obtain clout while striving honorably for a separate goal or end.

It’s time to stop clicking or liking or sharing content simply because it’s what we want to hear. In the hours after his arrest, Marjorie Taylor Greene made the mind-numbingly daft decision to paint the alleged leaker as some kind of hero. Her tweet has been viewed nearly 1 million times – which was exactly the point of her sending it. MTG, as she’s referred to in shorthand, is cut from the same cloth as the alleged leaker: clout-chasing is the end for her, and more people that click or react to what she says – even if they react negatively! – the more clout she receives.

This also goes for people on our side of the partisan ideological divide, regardless of which side you are on. Liberal commentators who make wild or baseless claims are clout-chasers; do not interact with their content. Conservative commentators who tweet heinous missives about women or LGBTQ+ people, or who dehumanize their political opposition are clout-chasers; do not interact with their content. These folks are also related to the snake-oil salesman of yore; charlatans who peddled needless wares back in the day or YouTube-famous fitness “influencers” of today who make wild claims in paid ads that don’t actually help anyone achieve their goals.

The most effective strategy that we have for dealing with clout-chasers is to withhold their clout. Force them into more face-to-face interactions, so that folks can more easily see through their charade. This is tough to do for someone like MTG, who awakens the darkest of creatures to support a cravenly anti-American platform. But it is something we absolutely must do in our armed forces.

Engage your people. Talk about values. Recognize people who are honorable in your unit. Pay attention to those who retreat into their phones or computers or gaming systems. Uphold the standards of service.

There are certain things – like racism, sexism, and white supremacy – that are absolutely incongruent with military service. I’m not saying that the current manifestation of clout-chasing is, too, but if we must act now to reinforce the honorable in our ranks and in our society before it’s too late.


4 Years Ago, I Left Active Duty and Ran for Congress

On Friday, I (finally) had my signed DD-214 in hand. On Tuesday, I announced that I was running for the US House of Representatives.

That was my life exactly four years ago.

If whiplash had a spokesperson, it was me. But for all intents and purposes, I felt fine. Sure, I was leaving a career that I loved, having served with honor for more than a decade. But I was doing something else that I was sure that I’d love and that I’d dreamt of since the first grade: entering the political arena to represent my neighbors in government. I hadn’t anticipated cutting it so close between leaving active duty and starting the campaign; that ended up being more of a function of the military personnel system taking a lot longer than anticipated.

I thought I knew what I was getting into. I had been a political junkie since I was a kid. I had majored in political science at Annapolis. Heck, I even took the Harvard Kennedy School course aptly named “How to Be a Politician.” I did my “rolodexing,” hired (mostly) top-notch campaign consultants, and had started calling friends and family to begin filling my fundraising war chest. Sure, I was looking down a competitive, three-way Democratic primary where I was viewed as an outsider. But I had the plans, knowledge, and belief that nobody was going to work harder than me on the campaign trail.

I knew that I could win.

But I did not win.

So what happened? What did I learn? And what can I share with others to help them go from outside the political machine to election day with the most success?

A few words up front: my experience, and therefore my bias in writing, is with a federal campaign. I was a full-time candidate, which means I did not have a job while I campaigned. While campaigning for non-federal office may be different, I believe the principles are the same, since you are trading the need to raise less money in, say, a campaign for the county legislature, but you also likely have a regular job that will take up most of your time.

What Happened

I love campaigning. Or rather, I should say, I love talking with people about how government works for them, and how it could work for them better.

I love helping people, and for me, the act of running for office was an exercise in making people feel seen and heard. I started the campaign by helping people in the coastal village of Fair Haven fill up and deliver sandbags to defend against historic flooding. I held a public town hall on gun violence just days after a young neighbor was killed by a gun, bringing together a grieving community. I brought my kids out to campaign for underdog candidates for county executive, county legislature, and city council.

I also love communicating about ideas. I relished every opportunity to take part in public forums with other candidates and community members to talk about policy, framing our agenda, and how we could reach people with our message. I tried to eschew the typical politician-speak that you hear from many candidates by being up-front, honest, and precise about policy and messaging.

And on the campaigning, people, and communicating fronts, I feel like we were successful. We developed loyal volunteers and even brought people to tears at our events. We routinely felt like we won the room at candidate forums, building momentum and interest in our campaign. And we raised nearly half a million dollars, won more than two dozen local endorsements, and hired a passionate staff of committed public servants – all in less than 9 months.

Still, we didn’t win. I ended the campaign a few months before the primary election, opting to salvage what little money and goodwill I still had rather than burning it all to the ground in an increasingly negative, three-way race. There were many reasons for this; it’s important to reflect on at least three of them here today.

What I Learned

First and foremost, you need to understand what kind of district you are running in because it will give you some ideas on what kind of campaign you need to run. I thought I understood the district: majority-rural, post-industrial, blue-collar with an aging population of reliable voters and a fierce, young core around a handful of universities.

And while that information is probably an accurate representation of New York’s old 24th Congressional District, it omits an important political fact: NY-24 was a “D+3” district according to the Cook Partisan Voter Index and was one of the Top 3-5 most competitive House seats in America. While Democrats enjoyed a voter enrollment advantage, this was a solidly “purple” district.

What does that mean for prospective candidates? For Democrats, there are really three types of districts: solidly “red” ones where a Democrat wins less than 5-10% of the time, solidly “blue” ones where a Democrat wins more than 90% of the time, and purple districts like NY-24 where party control splits regularly.

In red districts, Democrats frequently run as “sacrificial lambs,” if you’ll forgive the metaphor. Without much hope for victory, candidates often run and hope for their Republican opponent to make a colossal or disqualifying mistake. While there isn’t a great deal of support for these candidates in the General Election, they can serve to organize and motivate the local party infrastructure to show up and maybe win a surprise election once every few decades. Democrats win in red districts through significant cross-over voters, using persuasion and name recognition to outweigh the partisan priors of voters.

In blue districts, the real election is not in November; it is the Primary Election. In order to be on the ballot in November, Democrats must first defeat other Democrats in the primary. This can be tricky, but it is mostly a numbers game – excite and mobilize the most Democratic voters on Primary Day, and you are the winner. Candidates who raise a lot of money – and can therefore raise their name recognition through paid media – can be successful in blue districts, but big fundraising is not always a silver bullet here; upstart candidates with a better connection to reliable Democratic primary voters can win the ground game despite deep-pocketed opponents.

In purple districts, more often than not, it’s all about fundraising. These are competitive districts in November, and Democratic insiders are very attuned to a candidate’s fundraising totals because of what they think it means about a candidate’s chances of winning the General Election. Of course, Democrats who are outraised by Republicans in purple districts can – and often still do – win, because fundraising absent name recognition and a compelling, organizing campaign principle is pyrrhic fundraising. But a culture of “money over everything” persists in these Democratic circles and is the driving factor towards getting through a Democratic primary in a purple district.

So, while I raised about $500,000 during my campaign, my opponents raised about $100,000 more than me during that same time period. There are many reasons for this, and I’ve thought about them all often – time off for a new baby, not committing to an aggressive fundraising schedule, fewer political connections and favors to call in, etc – but they are, at the end of the day, simply excuses for the end result that I was third out of three candidates in overall fundraising.

Second, you must understand the political machinery wherever you are running. In some places, this is a handful of Democrats that get together regularly in the basement of a church. In other places, this is a well-oiled machine of block captains, bosses, and committee members who serve as party gatekeepers. This machine is often a shortcut for voter mobilization; if the local Democratic committee or prominent, well-known local Democrats support you, rank-and-file Democratic primary voters will take note. If you are running in a primary election, winning the preponderance of support from Democratic committee members is important.

Third, and finally, all of this shit is hard. The act of putting yourself out there is a highly vulnerable exercise and tying it to a campaign where people constantly weigh in on your worth in the form of money, time of day, and votes is exhausting. Maintaining the kind of fundraising schedule to be competitive in a purple district is bordering on insanity. Add a family or outside job to the mix? It’s certifiable.

What to Do Different

I’ve discussed the three biggest things I learned on the campaign trail: money, machines, and madness. While I maintain that it is difficult to learn these lessons without first being a candidate yourself, here are three practices you can put into place now if you are thinking about running for office soon.

First and foremost, develop a mental health plan. This is the most important aspect of running for office. Yes, you need money. Yes, you need votes. But if you don’t have a solid handle on your mental and physical health when you start, you are going to have a much more difficult time raising money and garnering votes.

Second, if you’re in a purple district, commit to an aggressive fundraising schedule. By “aggressive,” I mean at least 60-80 hours per week at the start of your campaign for federal candidates. This might seem unnatural – it certainly did for me! – but the money you raise early on will enable you to do the things that you love later in the campaign with less stress, i.e. talking with people, developing connections, and persuading voters.

Finally, learn the rules of the game early. If you’re in a purple district, there are likely significant party gatekeepers to the process of running for office; unfortunately, these folks can be proxies for hundreds or even thousands of primary voters. Like it or not, most of these people do not care where you served, how you served, or how good your ideas are; they care about what you will do for them and how your candidacy will enhance their own power or prospects. Money talks and memory lingers; candidates who can cut big checks to committees or elected officials can more easily show their value than the rest of us, and those who can point to wealthy or powerful family members with connections to the local committee or elected establishment have a much easier time, too. Yes, this is absolutely disgusting, but as one particularly pernicious party insider once told me: “that’s just how it is around here.”

Why This is All Pretty Fucked Up

If you don’t come from money or a politically connected family, the harsh reality is that you are going to have to work many times harder than other, more privileged candidates to attain recognition or achieve success on the campaign trail. Privilege in elected politics is vicious; entire “legacies” are erected upon it and the good-paying, taxpayer funded salaries it ensures. There is a reason that power corrupts and that many of the most powerful politicians in your local area are likely the descendants of some other powerful politician.

During my campaign, I thought I did a pretty good job as a candidate – raising decent money, showing up for other people, and articulating a Democratic message that could win a General Election against a popular and entrenched incumbent. But I am under no illusions that I was the best candidate in my congressional district. The more I traveled and talked and connected, the more I saw of the thousands of volunteers, workers, and leaders in our communities who probably should be representing us in public office: the parents, advocates, and kind-hearted souls who do the lion’s share of the work ministering to people in various, essential aspects of life.

But these people don’t run for office, often because the very lessons learned I have laid out here preclude them from running altogether. They cannot afford to be a full-time candidate. They cannot afford to keep their kids in childcare for the entire day. They cannot afford the mental and physical toll that campaigns in our current, post-Citizens United era take on honest human beings.

And yet our country needs these people to represent us in government. We need people in government who serve others before themselves and who are less concerned with legacy than they are about policy. We need people in government who will work like hell to change the very system of running for political office I have described here so that it can be easier and less costly for more of the right kinds of people to run in the future.

So the biggest lesson that I learned from running for office so soon after leaving the military is that I do not, in fact, need to run for office to make this country better. If I can make the process of running for office more accessible, more understandable, and more successful for more of the right people? That’s the real win.


Veterans Deserve Support, WaPo. Full Stop.

When I left active duty four years ago, I had a hard time accessing my benefits as a veteran. That difficulty was twofold:

  1. The bureaucratic nightmare that is documenting and requesting a disability rating from the Department of Veterans Affairs
  2. The internal guilt I felt that I was not worthy of veterans benefits despite 10 years of service that included multiple combat deployments

I am not alone, either. More than two-thirds of America’s veterans do not access the full breadth of the benefits they have earned by their service in uniform.

Sadly, today’s Washington Post Editorial Board opinion piece will make it less likely that more of these veterans will come home and access the care they have earned.

The Post’s argument goes something like this:

  1. The budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs has steeply risen since 9/11
  2. Disability benefits are roughly half of the VA’s budget
  3. “Disabled veterans return to the workforce at nearly the same rate as veterans without disabilities.”
  4. Therefore, if you want to work as a disabled veteran, you should forfeit your disability benefits.

The Post Editorial Board claims that “the moral responsibility Americans have to those who fought for the country is of diminished value if it does not align with the fiscal responsibility Americans have to keep their financial house safe and sound.”

But this is categorically false. And it’s a dangerously transactional view of morality.

Morals do not depend on “fiscal responsibility.” Morals depend on doing what is right.

First, let’s get one thing out of the way: fiscal responsibility is a noble virtue. Any government spending should be stewarded by responsible government officials, held accountable by the American people.

But let’s be clear: balancing the budget on the backs of America’s veterans is the height of immorality. The Post gets their logic exactly backwards: the time to save money on veterans benefits is not after the fact, when some technocrat thinks the budget totals are getting too high for their preference. The time to save money on veterans benefits was before committing American troops to large-scale combat operations overseas.

Let this be a lesson to the American people: wars cost money, and that money isn’t all paid up-front. There is a long tail to the American war machine; love the machine or hate the machine, veterans benefits are not to blame for your fiscal unease.

In the immediate term, I am worried that the Post’s decision to publish this piece will have a chilling effect on veterans seeking needed care. More than half of all veterans already pay out of pocket for care that should be free to them; more still do not even think to get needed care for themselves out of an outplaced notion that somehow they did not “earn it” properly or that there isn’t enough money to go around for everyone.

I spend so much time telling veterans that these fears are misplaced; that all veterans are deserving of their full benefits and that their country supports this unequivocally.

Unfortunately, the fear that veterans feel in accessing care and benefits was given a face and a name in the Washington Post Editorial Board. It is shameful, to say the least, but I am thankful for those who will continue to pick up the pieces and ignore this unnecessary addition to the public discourse.


Leaders Love Relationships

Institutional inertia is a real thing. Whether you’re in the military or civilian world, organizations are imbued with all of the history, the hurt, and the hurdles they have acquired since their inception. This can be a daunting reality to contend with as a new hire.

There are a number of ways to be a new person in an organization. One of the benefits of military service is that, every 24-36 months, we have the opportunity to test our “onboarding” personas and collect lessons about what works and what doesn’t.

After dozens of job changes in the past two decades, I have learned that I am a “sit back and listen” kind of “new person.” This doesn’t always work well in every organization, but it allows me an opportunity to take stock of what I’m walking into, what is expected of me, and what my real challenges will be in a new role.

And in all that time, in all those job changes, here is what I have learned:

The leaders who do well are the leaders who love relationships.

I suppose we should pause for a moment and discuss what “doing well” as a leader means. On this site and whenever I write, I am not giving advice to people who simply want to maximize their own evaluations or fitness reports. I am not speaking to people who simply want to climb whatever ladder to personal success if before them. For me, “doing well” as a leader means leading a team to accomplish outsized goals. “Doing well” means making an impact that is personal, professional, and profound.

So why are we talking about institutional inertia and relationships? Because they are at the core of how we make an impact in any career field. Even the President of the United States needs to manage relationships to make an impact during her time in office.

We’ve all been on teams where it is well known that “this person/office/organization does not work with us.” And everybody has an excuse for why the relationship is the way it is. This can sound like:

“Headquarters requires us to work with this team and send a weekly update on our progress, but they are impossible to work with and give us shoddy work.”

“That project leader is an asshole and treats people outside of his team like garbage.”

“It is nearly impossible for us to get the truth from this other team, so we just go around them and cut them out of key meetings.”

Sometimes, our organizations have rivalries that cannot be managed away, such as with a market competitor.

But far too often, we accept toxic relationships when two teams are working towards the same goal. It could be a military mission, a political platform, or a round of seed funding. Institutional inertia can deliver us a poor relationship between two positions in different organizations, poisoning both teams.

In none of the organizations I have belonged to were we able to do well while accepting toxic relationships. It just does not work – or if it does, it does not work for long. The best leaders I have ever seen recognize the work they have to do while prioritizing relationship-building with those external entities that have plagued their team for so long.

Here are five ways that leaders can right the ship on toxic relationships – and learn to love them:

  1. Adopt a learning mindset. Institutional inertia forces us to accept a one-sided telling of a situation; that can be a difficult thing to break, especially if we identify closely with the organization we are a part of (i.e. I’m a fighter pilot and all other non-fighter pilots are wrong; I am an AI expert and all other non-AI experts are wrong, etc.). The keys to manging even the worst of relationships are humility and curiosity. Be the first mover and ask the other leader or team for their perspective. What do they care about? How do they see the relationship? How can you improve in their eyes? Make sure you actually listen to what they have to say and ask follow-up questions.
  2. Recognize. Sometimes, the other side of a toxic relationship just doesn’t feel seen by us. One of the best tools to correct this is just to say thanks or give credit to them. This can be both a private and public expression, but it must be authentic and meaningful.
  3. Be deliberately honest. Once you have established rapport and listened to the other side, you need to assert your view of the situation, too. Be kind, but be honest, and allow the other team to be defensive if that’s their first reaction. Remember: if the view you are sharing is different than your team’s view, you need to follow-up internally and level-set with your own team on the progress you’re making with the other side and do a bit of internal persuasion, too.
  4. Set shared goals. Once you’ve laid your cards on the table, set a few short-, medium-, and long-term goals together with the other team. This could be as simple as “receive updates regularly on Thursdays” or as complex as multi-faceted data sharing agreements. Couch these goals in the understanding you have achieved in the first few steps – whether that’s the understanding that you both need to satisfy the same boss in higher headquarters or meet the same quarterly revenue goals.
  5. Don’t make it about you. I cannot stress this enough – if you are only working relationships to benefit you and your bottom line, you will fail. Maybe not right away, but people will see right through your inauthenticity. Don’t be that guy.

Relationship management is my favorite part of being in a new organization or team. It can be so difficult to feel like you’re contributing while you’re trying to learn a new organization’s rules, culture, and knowledge base. One of the easiest and most impactful things we can do from the outset is build or repair relationships for our teams.

As leaders at any level, we should never accept toxic relationships as inevitable or “just the way it is.” While this post has dealt with mostly external-to-the-team relationships, we should accept toxic relationships within our team even less! Dig deeper, put in the time, and turn your hurdles into helpers. Leaders who learn to love relationships are the most effective leaders in any organization.