Look up the meaning of prudence and you will find that it generally means being wise about your next steps – with the end always in mind. This is why I define the virtue of prudence as “thoughtful mindfulness.” My youngest son (age 12) is always running into people because at his age he lacks the mindfulness of the world around him, especially when he is caught up in conversation. “Son, watch where you are going; you are going to run into that lady,” I sometimes say.
Being prudent requires us to be smart and mindful. Remember the early dialogue of Star Wars: Episode I? But Master Yoda said we should always be mindful of the future. “Not at the expense of the present, my young padawon.” When we fail to act prudently, and we all do, it is because we either fail to be smart or fail to be mindful of second or third order effects. What we do now will affect us or others later.
Unfortunately, prudence is more difficult for young people to come by for this very reason: experience is necessary. Not every mature person is prudent but the older you are the more experience you gain – it is just a fact. Every time I fail at my work or in relating to others, I gain a little more prudence. This is why prudence is a virtue not a character trait – not everyone learns from their experiences. I don’t always agree with those who are older or have more experience, but I will always listen before discounting what they say.
There are things we don’t see, like my son who doesn’t notice that people are walking around him. I value when I am corrected because it gives me the chance to be better whether that is better at my job or better as a person. Sometimes I learn from negative examples, too. I tell Soldiers who are dealing with difficult supervisors or senior NCOs that they must remember that those individuals are learning how to lead; they aren’t experts in leading. While we can learn a great deal academically about leadership, leadership, like prudence, improves only with experience and only with prudence. I tell these Soldiers that they can learn something from these perceived difficult people even if it is by a negative example – knowing what not to do.
Prudence is cautious. When we are driving in the winter on icy roads, it is prudent that we slow down. When Soldiers conduct route clearance downrange, their diligence to caution taught them to be prudent as well. With so many lives as stake, they learned to be mindful – whether that relates to a vice or some change in the route that might hide an IED.
I had a battalion commander mentor me about C-A-V. Have you heard about it? Maybe some of you NCOs know what I’m talking about. It stands for coordinate, anticipate, and verify, and it is what I live by now. Every time I’ve mucked up something it was usually because I didn’t follow one of these three rules. I like to replace the second word, however, with one of my favorite vocabulary words: obviate. Obviate means “To anticipate and dispose of effectively; render unnecessary.”
This is exactly what prudence does. It obviates problems. When I first joined the Army as an active duty chaplain, my first and foremost goal the first year was to not make anybody mad. I figured if my commander was happy and my Soldiers were happy, then I was doing okay. As chaplains, we spend most of our time obviating things – some get very anxious about it and often to a fault.
Prudence is a virtue and like all virtues we have to grow in them. Prudence, especially in a zero-defect Army, is really a kind of perfectionism that is extremely destructive when the end doesn’t require it. Some times 80 percent solutions are the most prudent. Trying to be perfect all the time requires Jesus not you. I don’t know about you but I don’t have his qualifications.
Nonetheless, as military professionals, we require some amount of “thoughtful mindfulness” to succeed. We see it most often when we fail to act prudently like when we drink and drive, or when we treat the person of the opposite sex disrespectfully. Imprudence lacks caution. It doesn’t obviate – it exacerbates. Now you can use that combo for your next bit of poetry. Let me tell you from my experience as a chaplain: it pays to be prudent.