[July 9, 2020] Amazingly, several idioms from World War II are still with us 75 years after the end of that great conflict.1 If you’re taking flak, you’re over the target is an old, WWII Army Air Force phrase. It means to take criticism (flak) from a position on a controversial topic (the target). Leaders are first to be criticized for their views and are susceptible to disparagement and abuse for what they say or do.
Frankly, that is the very epitome of a leader. It is a real leader who puts themselves in the “line of fire.” Why would anyone put themselves in such a position, a position that would not seem to carry any advantage? That question has been asked many times, and the answer partially explains why so many avoid such a situation.
We all find life much easier if we sit back and watch the fireworks when someone says something with which others disagree. The more emotion involved, the greater the “flak” a person will take for taking an unpopular position. We can see this today when someone takes a political position that is out of favor. They are attacked on social media and sometimes in the press for what they have said. Political conservatives often see themselves in this circumstance.
What I find particularly interesting is that the majority of people taking unpopular positions back down shortly after. They apologize for “offending anyone who might have been hurt” by their comments (or actions) and is quick to say they will never do it again. Such behavior is, of course, cowardice. When we have studied our positions thoughtfully but fail to express them politely, we are self-censoring. A good leader will openly ask for feedback, a valuable tool to improve their way of thinking.
On the other hand, some folks seem to revel in the attention they get from expressing disliked opinions. They love it when others challenge them. The best leaders know that only through vigorous back and forth debate, can a stable position be strengthened. Through good communications, peacefully conducted, the field of ideas will expand, and everyone will gain. When violence and attempts to banish people for their views occurs, there is the possibility of losing new, creative concepts, ideas, and useful inventions.
So, remember that the most influential leaders of our times are those that are taking a lot of flak for their opinions. The question is, can we do the same?
- The one I use most often is “the whole nine yards,” which refers to the length of ammunition belts used in WWII American bombers. This is the most widely circulated explanation of the term’s origins. https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/the-whole-nine-yards/