In the fall of 1996, I had the honor of being selected to attend the Federal Bureau of Investigation National Academy at Quantico, Virginia.
This week marked the 21st anniversary of my graduation from this prestigious program.
The “NA” is housed at the FBI’s sprawling training facility on a secluded area of Marine Corps Base Quantico. In addition to training new agents, the highly-secure compound hosts the FBI’s state-of-the-art forensic laboratories, research sections and the famous “Hogan’s Alley” – an incredibly realistic small town built with the help of Hollywood set designers where actors turn routine events into life-and-death scenarios that teach real-time tactical decision-making skills.
Less than one percent of law enforcement officers in the world are nominated to attend this invitation-only course of study, and I had the unique fortune to work with some incredibly smart people, many of whom held executive-level positions in specialized law enforcement agencies around-the-globe.
This wonderful opportunity was a true highlight of my career.
At the time, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s basic agent training program was co-located at the FBI Academy. That changed in 1999, when the DEA moved to its own technologically advanced training facility nearby, but during my session, DEA, FBI and National Academy students all shared the same circuitous “gerbil tube” hallways, dining hall, gymnasium and training facilities.
The only things that differentiated us was our age – and the color of our shirts. As I recall, the DEA trainees wore black polo shirts, the FBI new agents wore navy blue and NA attendees wore hunter green.
There was another unique difference I quickly noticed.
The DEA’s new agents were required to make eye contact and exchange a pleasant greeting with everyone they encountered.
I don’t know if this is still a requirement – but I sure hope it is.
This exercise may at first appear to be a meaningless practice designed to instill cohesion and discipline in trainees, but in truth – the routine act of making basic human contact and exchanging pleasantries with everyone you meet develops important social skills, builds confidence and teaches new investigators to listen attentively, observe those around them and develop a positive rapport.
It also helps cultivate a professional image regardless of your career or endeavors.
Of all the valuable lessons I learned at the FBI National Academy, this simple act of acknowledging others stayed with me the longest – and paid incredibly important personal and professional dividends throughout my working life.
If you are new to the workforce, showing sincere respect for everyone from the janitor to the CEO of your company will quickly set you apart as someone with a high-level of emotional intelligence.
Trust me. The world is full of self-absorbed assholes – we don’t need anymore of those.
Anyone who holds a leadership position in any public or private organization quickly recognizes the value of making everyone feel welcome and included – even those with whom you have conflict.
There will be plenty of opportunities to argue, debate and negotiate the issues of the day – but a friendly nod in the hallway, or saying ‘hello’ in the break room, shows you understand the important difference between “business matters” and healthy professional relationships.
In other words, this simple act demonstrates the capacity to transcend passionate disagreement and embrace the idea that everyone is on the same team – colleagues working toward the same goal.
I still believe that we can debate the issues of the day, vehemently disagree with one another, yet still end the day as friends and neighbors with a common experience.
During my long career, I worked for some great managers. I also worked for a few highly-educated people whose ultimate failure was directly attributable to their inability to show even a modicum of respect for their subordinates and constituents.
For instance, one city manager I served under set the tone at the beginning of every meeting by openly belittling at least one employee present – as though sacrificing the dignity of someone at the table was necessary to establish dominance and set an example for anyone who might dare cross the boss.
As often happens, this manager’s lack of self-awareness and emotional incompetence resulted in high turnover, low morale and a loss of public confidence.
The damage is still being repaired.
Naturally, this person is now a self-employed “management consultant” preying on local governments in crisis.
On Sunday mornings, Patti and I have a long-standing routine that involves straightening-up Barker’s View HQ before I go to the grocery and stock the larder for the coming week.
Now that I’m retired, this weekly food shopping expedition is perhaps my most important personal contribution – and a much-anticipated outing where I get to interact with sentient beings other than my dogs.
Even if that interaction is limited to “paper or plastic?”
Maybe I got caught up in the whole Spirit of the Season thing – the ring-a-ding-ding of a Salvation Army kettle attendant has that effect on me – but yesterday, as I walked through the crowded parking lot (it was just after high noon, and the “church crowd” was shuffling in), I made a point to make eye contact, smile, and say ‘hello’ – or the PC ‘Happy Holidays!’ – to everyone I encountered in my path.
Shockingly – not one person responded in kind.
Perhaps given our current situation in this country, ignoring each other has become part of the culture – or conceivably people are just too damn busy for superficial pleasantries these days?
Or maybe in this tech-obsessed era – where people literally walk into holes in the earth while staring at their phone – we are rapidly losing those esoteric “people skills – attributes that are hard to define, but easy to recognize. Besides, they haven’t developed an app to say ‘Hi.’
It’s also possible people recognize me as the neighborhood curmudgeon and simply give me a wide berth.
Look, I realize with my unkempt beard and what’s left of my out-of-control hair blowing wildly in the breeze, I must have looked like a down-at-the-heels homeless person soliciting a handout (I was on the beachside, after all) – but I couldn’t even coax a disapproving nod.
Young and old, rich and poor – everyone from “church folk” in nice suits to beach-going vacationers – all equally ignored my friendly salutation, quickly cutting their eyes, or simply plowing right past me, gaze fixed firmly on the horizon.
At one point, an attractive young woman dressed cap-a-pie in painted-on spandex, boldly invaded my personal space as I searched the spice rack for ground nutmeg – quickly reaching over my right shoulder to grab a tin of poultry seasoning about eight-inches from my nose.
I instinctively recoiled, issued a friendly, “excuse me,” then stepped to the side – a seemingly natural maneuver which resulted in a brief, but odd, blank stare. I’m not certain, but I could have sworn she muttered an angry, “up yours, asshole” as she put distance between her buggy and mine.
(The elderly lady who boldly and unashamedly farted in the egg aisle is another story, for another time. . .)
Hey, I realize that in the Halifax area, most people quickly develop self-defense mechanisms.
After all, you need some hard bark here. If you show any form of weakness, one of our beach-town grifters or predatory miscreants will think you need help and take immediate advantage.
I get it.
But during this season of giving – the most “Wonderful Time of the Year” – in addition to the obligatory gifts, remember that we could all use more authentic friendliness and good wishes in our lives.
I think it helps build community by restoring faith in the inherent goodness of our neighbors.
Maybe not – but it still seems the right thing to do.
So, if you see a disheveled has-been with a scraggly white beard wearing ratty cargo shorts, worn-out Top Siders and a wrinkled Hawaiian shirt shambling down the vodka section of any local ABC store – take a second to say ‘howdy’ – and I’ll remember to do the same.
Let’s all forget local politics for a little while, set aside our disagreements and enjoy this beautiful place we call home during this most joyous season.
Who knows what a renewed sense of sociability and neighborliness might do for our collective experience here on the beleaguered Fun Coast?
Now, here’s my Christmas gift to all the “Movers & Shakers” I take to the woodshed all year: Please print out the photo at the top and stick it on your dartboard!
From the Barker family to yours – Merry Christmas, ya’ll.
(Barker’s View will be on hiatus through next week as we enjoy friends and family. During my travels, I’ll be posting a few “Best of Barker’s View” pieces from the past year – some good, and not-so-good – ramblings on the myriad issues affecting our lives and livelihoods here in Volusia County. As always, thanks so much for reading!)