Book review ‘I swear allegiance – Being yourself in a uniform world’ by Michiel van der Pols, Part 2

Earlier this week I discussed the introductory chapters of ‘I swear allegiance – Being yourself in a uniform world’, written by Michiel van der Pols. If you’ve also listened to the podcast episode with him by now, you will have heard that we also discussed the cover of his book towards the end.

I was curious about the contents of the book, but initially sensed some hesitation in myself because of the somewhat nationalistic-looking cover. My husband decided in the early 1980s to refuse military service on grounds of conscientious objection and I wholeheartedly agreed. The whole concept of military aggression was something I did not like and swearing allegiance to an organisation (or uncritically following protocols that are scientifically outdated) has also been a very complicated concept for decades. The title, ‘I swear allegiance’, in red (‘I’), white (‘swear’) and blue (‘loyalty’) on the cover, supplemented on the top one-third with a Dutch flag under which a hand with two raised fingers can be seen against a dark gray background… I was not sure how I was supposed to interpret all those symbols. Strangely enough, due to the design the two raised fingers (ring finger, little finger and thumb folded in half) looked like a raised middle finger at a quick glance. Was I supposed to factor that suggestion into my interpretation and expectations…? I did not know. The subtitle, ‘Being yourself in a uniform world’, already gave a strong nuance to a few things and the description on the back also gave me the feeling that something special had been achieved with this book.

That is indeed my conclusion after reading: this book deserves wide attention, which is why I asked Michiel to be a guest in the ACE Aware NL podcast ‘Raising Resilience’. His vision is a passionate plea for a different social view of dealing with emotions. When leaders are aware of the impact of early childhood trauma and truly integrate the knowledge about the impact of suppressing emotions, their leadership style will change. Of course it is important that trauma sensitivity becomes part of the society-wide DNA and that children grow up without ACEs. However, when the insights become embedded in the culture of large, important organisations, there is at least more room for people to heal, especially when they were unable to develop the desired resilience in childhood. Particularly in the high-risk sector, where people do important and regularly also dangerous work to guarantee the peace, freedom and safety of others, it is important that the mental and emotional well-being of employees receives the care it deserves. This calls for attention to the culture in the organisations concerned, so that all kinds of dynamics take on a healthier character and resilience is supported.

However, organisations such as the military and the police have very old social roots, from which the hierarchical structures can be explained. That makes it quite an endeavour to bring about a paradigm shift. In Chapter 7 Michiel gives an overview of the history of the armed forces from the 15th century. The strict, hierarchical climate is often a barrier to empathy. The fear of making mistakes and being punished for them feeds a very toxic culture within this (and every other) organisation. Michiel experienced this firsthand: “It felt like things were always serious within the barracks. As if it was always war and that was why we had to treat each other this way. (…) Good behaviour is rewarded, bad behaviour is punished” (p.215), possibly with a reprimand, fine, service or curfew as a result and, if more serious, with disciplinary measures from the Military Criminal Law. Deviating from the uniformity in behaviour is quickly seen as difficult and threatening and often makes someone unreliable in the eyes of those ranked higher (p. 216). That clashes with how Michiel now looks at it, namely: “The more authentic and self-confident, the more reliable, as far as I am concerned” (p.326). According to Michiel, being in touch with your own emotions greatly improves your professionalism. This vision is revolutionary for organisations where the following of orders is often still prominently anchored in the system.

Michiel’s vision is based on insights he has acquired as a breakthrough coach. These are closely linked to insights from the trauma field, in which emotions and feelings are seen as the inner, guiding compass. They are signals from the body that tell you what to do. Michiel has summarised his insights in five red threads:

  1. Motivations (about the motivation for career choice: from the head, not from the heart)
  2. Identity (on the degree of identification with the professional role)
  3. Feelings and emotions (about the difficulty in showing them and acknowledging your own needs)
  4. PTSD (about PTSD as a drop in a bucket already almost overflowing due to childhood trauma)
  5. Lack of sense of safety (about difficulty being completely yourself, both in childhood and now)

Chapters 3, 4, 5, and 6 are devoted to these aspects; a large number of stories from people in his coaching practice show how these themes played a role for them in their professional and private lives. The difficult sides of it meant that people got stuck on all kinds of fronts and ended up in a personal crisis. That those people were willing to appear in Michiel’s book by name and rank and share the story of their recovery process demonstrates the need and willingness to show vulnerability. In this way, others can also find courage to change the way they deal with emotions in their work. In the book and also in the podcast, Michiel says he sees himself as an interpreter of their message, which has many similarities with his own story.

It is nice to see that Michiel makes a link between leadership and parenting: “Raising children is almost the same as leadership. You role model life for your children and with your behaviour you are their mirror. To what extent are you able to see yourself as a parent and can you also see your child for who they really are? (…) The extent to which the parents are true to themselves is the mirror for the child to be true to themselves” (p.201). Mirrors… a beautiful and concise image! After all… the cultures in certain organisations and in societies as a whole (medium and large systems) are a reflection of the small systems in which we grow up in our family of origin. When we feel seen there and feel free and safe, we can contribute in a constructive, resilient way to any organisation or system.

As always, I also read Michiel’s book with a pencil in hand, so that I could make notes on beautiful passages and important phrases. There are so many of these underlinings that I cannot discuss all of them, as much as they are worth mentioning. In short: go read that book, dear people! Somewhere Michiel mentions the possibility that he has ‘flattened’ and simplified things too much, but that was certainly not my experience when reading. I read a wonderful story with specific nuances and many relevant case studies. The fact that Michiel is so open about his own deficit in knowledge and awareness at the beginning of his career gives the book a lot of persuasiveness to me. He asks questions that matter and makes statements that matter, such as this one on the last page, when he summarises what he believes is needed for a holistic approach to people’s life story and thus for a cultural change: “It takes courage to let go of old behaviours that no longer fit the times of today. (…) It requires the will to be true to ourselves above all” (p.328). Wow, what beautiful closing words – what a magnificent, almost spiritual inversion of the words on the cover!

Posted in Book and movie reviews.