Executive Ability

Virtually every MBA program on the planet talks about leadership, even though what they really mean is management. Let’s talk about leadership. Probably the most stressful, trying leadership job in the world is being an infantry company commander at war. The New York Times has a good article profiling one company commander and the weight of responsibility on his shoulders.

In his first three months of command, he had led soldiers in bruising firefights, witnessed the aftermath of a devastating car bomb, nominated soldiers for valor awards and disciplined others for insubordination. He had put in countless 18-hour days writing reports, accounting for $30 million in equipment and planning missions, at least one of which he had to abandon when his Afghan partners, the local police, unexpectedly declined to participate.

Captain Bonenberger, a graduate of Yale who protested the invasion of Iraq before he joined the Army, had deployed to Afghanistan once before, as a lieutenant in 2007, but had not commanded a combat unit. Now he had the prospect, terrifying but also thrilling, of shouldering greater responsibility than he had ever known.

“You have the ability, and the responsibility, to imagine and implement the strategy that will turn your districts from red to yellow to green,” he said. “Taking command of Alpha Company was one of the crowning achievements in my life.”

Every decision a company commander or platoon leader at war makes is life or death. One mistake can mean a soldier goes home dead or missing a limb. Worse yet, a commander can do everything right, and still lose a soldier.

I’ve had some excellent company commanders and platoon leaders, men who were able to harness that mixture of hardness and charisma to lead people to do things that were at a minimum unpleasant, and at worst, very dangerous. And they could lead them to do so not merely out of obedience to authority, but with a sense of pride and commitment, and gratitude that they were able to serve with others.

Sadly, I have also had some junior officers that lacked that strength of character and self confidence to truly lead men. Few things are more pitiful than watching an officer try to push others on the basis of rank, rather than lead based on their moral authority. Few of those officers made long term commitments to the Army.

Unfortunately, for the good commanders out there, the payoff for doing an excellent job is to be fired:

Many officers fondly recall their days as platoon leaders and company commanders as the most fulfilling of their military careers. Yet the Army each year faces an exodus of captains from the service. Burnout, second-guessing by superior officers and the prospect of dull administrative jobs after deployment are often cited as reasons.

The best a captain can hope for when his tour as a company commander ends is to be stuck in one of the less bad staff jobs.

Let’s take a moment to also remember those members of the US Navy that serve alongside the soldiers of the Army. Read the whole NYT article and you’ll see what I mean.

29 thoughts on “Executive Ability”

  1. Great article and write-up, X-Brad.
    I agree that leadership can’t be taught in an MBA program. Leadership is a gift, is values-driven, and is proven out when one must quickly decide to risk resources and take the heat whether there is failure or success. Good leaders assess those risks and continue to lead anyway.

    1. Well, leadership CAN be taught. If not, the Army would be screwed. But GIFTED leaders are few and far between. Esli and I once had a discussion about how so much of what we learned about leadership, we actually learned in high school. And it is true. Some great places to learn leadership are in Scouts, team sports, and other similar organizations. Anybody that asks you to serve on a committee, however, is NOT training you to lead.

    2. Leadership can be taught, to a point. Part of leadership is also found in personality. I was able to follow some people both before and after training for several years. The guys that were good leaders had a certain “presence” that resulted from their personality alone. I also noted that a mousey fella can still get through ossifer training, but aren’t worth much because they just don’t have the forceful personality leadership requires.

      I disagree with Grumpy’s Admiral. The fact is management and leadership are two different things, and both involve men and material. The mousey guy can be a successful manager even if he can’t be a good leader. The skill sets are different. Leadership involves direct contact with men. A manager may never see the people he pushes around. Patton started as a leader, but he ended WW2 as a manager. George Marshall was never a leader. He did not do well on the small unit level, and Pershing brought him up to Chaumont to his staff where he did well. He did well in DC during WW2 because he a manager’s skill set.

    3. Taught to a point seems to be the place might agree. History coursework can highlight how good leadership improved outcomes. Business, organizational, behavioral, and communication classes can teach whatleadership is. Experiencing life shows us good leadership. We can look back at people we knew, maybe a great teacher or scout leader or even a close friend, and see how they led others. But the leader in us is either there or not there. It may not have come out to play yet. It may be shoved at the bottom of our inner tool box because of trauma or arrested development. It may not have found opportunity to emerge. But I still hold to the belief that some people will NEVER learn how to, and therefore, BECOME a leader no matter what coursework taught in the military or university. There might be exceptions… Maybe you all have your stories to share that will convince this purist otherwise.

  2. Brad, well done, part of the problem in today’s society is this, we do not know what a leader is. As an old Navy Admiral explained it to me, “You manage things, you lead people.” But when we think about leadership, how many of these people have actually been in warfare? Before you answer that question, to be a good leader, you must be a good example. I’m only a kid, about 62 years old. When you talk about leadership, what are you really talking about? Does the fact that you have been in war, make you a good leader? Just maybe, we should take a look at the quality of that service. Not everything you hear in the press release is true. All I am saying is this, make sure of what you believe. This is not for my benefit, but for yours.

    It has been said, History is a Very Nasty Teacher, she does not mark on a curve and she is extremely unforgiving. As we look at our future, we are looking at very hard times. To be honest, I’ve been less than impressed with this some, of what some people call leadership. It is strange but things did not need to go this way, we made choices. This predates 9/11/2001, but history will pull all of this time together, into one ugly package with no wrapping paper. To understand this, you need to understand other cultures in the areas we are presently fighting. My father would put it this way, “the boy did not do his homework, if he had, we wouldn’t be here.

  3. Brad, you’re right, there are many things about leadership that most people do not understand. Yes, Principles of Leadership can be taught, but Methods of Leadership often fall short and often aggravates a very bad situation. The bigger question with leadership is the term, “Accountability”. Now, what does that really mean? What happens or what are the consequences of failure that actually come upon the Leader! If he has no consequences, there is absolutely no Leadership! There have been times when people have done things that appeared to be noble, but that nobility is purely a façade!

  4. “The best a captain can hope for when his tour as a company commander ends is to be stuck in one of the less bad staff jobs. ”

    On the face of it, true, but let me offer a second perspective. I spent 31 months in command of two companies (1 x tank 70 personnel, and one HHC with 295 personnel). The army policy is 18 months for one command, and 24 months for two commands. I was so burned out and tired from giving everything I had, I couldn’t wait to switch out. In that time, I had 17 platoon leaders, 5 XOs and 3 1SGs work for me. I worked from 0600 to about 2030 every day if I was not in the field or deployed. Awesome responsibility that I was honored to be entrusted with. Since then, I have served as an active duty trainer for the national guard, and as both an operations officer and XO at the squadron and brigade level. the conditions are still hard, and I have loved every job I have had, but the key for me is that I always have a crop of junior officers to mentor, and that is my favorite part of the job. I think mentoring is where we as an army fail, and it makes it unnecessarily hard for the junior guys.

  5. Thank you gentlemen for your service and your LEADERSHIP, where ever you offered it. In it’s purest sense I’ll still hold to my original concept that leadership can not be earned in some MBA program. I truly believe that leaders are gifted by God, and that they/we emerge WHEN it is our time or season.

    I will bend to the notion that leadership can be ‘nurtured’ or ‘encouraged’ in someone who has the gift, and believe that our military is a perfect place for this to happen. I’m glad we have places where leadership is still honored and respected. But many simply do not have it and nothing they do will ever muster it up in them. Sorry. I’m a purist. My background spans from systems analysis, business management, into theology, ministry, spiritual counseling, military hospital chaplaincy, and organizational systems in the family and church setting, so I know some of what you discuss, but from several different venues.

    Bottom line for me: A gifted leader can lead others into risking all for what has been engendered in them that they hold precious, and sometimes that is being willing to die for it without regret.

    1. Even if leadership is a gift from God, I know that it is not always allowed to grow. Just as the potential of a great basketball player or great mathematician never emerges without the proper coach or teacher, great leaders and even average leaders cannot reach their potential without a mentor. My leadership experience is mostly from 14 years as a Scoutmaster, so I found myself teaching leadership to 11-18 years every time I saw them. While some had obvious talent early on, every one of them needed help to find the leader within them. Others started as quiet, mousy guys that many people would think could never be a leader. If you teach them some of the tools and put them in a position in which they have actual executive authority, you’ll be surprised how many of them find the leader in themselves.

      Now, I don’t know if you can take a 35-year-old or a 45-year-old and put him or her in an MBA program and teach them anything about leadership, but I do know that leadership can be taught and learned. Not everyone can or will learn it, and none can learn it if they never have that executive authority, but enough of them do to make teaching it worthwhile.

  6. Cathy, be careful, I will be bouncing off the wall a few different times, please bear with me. It may be that my brain in your brain are not on the same wavelength on this issue, but let’s test it I want to find out where I am wrong. You appear to be a fine individual, both when the term “leadership” comes into the discussion, up comes the wall. More or less, you seem to be saying this, “Leadership is something for the military.” Then you kind of walk away, and if you are free of responsibilities. But, on the other hand, by your actions, you have proven me wrong. You are showing me, through your actions, a form of leadership through servant hood. It’s a powerful message through the example of your life, I have only asked the people find their place, get there and fill their role in the big picture. To me, this is leadership, you are showing, leadership by example, a compelling message. The Military is not the only place to serve this Great Nation. Cathy, you’ll are showing a type of accountability which is really important. I don’t see you as the person who is sitting on the board or in some committees, but you were involved in the actual battles of life and death. Cathy, thank you for getting into the fight you have found your place that you were deployed in this battle and you have gone. Please stay in the fight.You are the “Leader” in “Leadership”.

  7. Grumpy, your comments are honorable and touching. Thank you. I personally have nothing to boast about. It’s God’s stuff. God has not yet placed me in much danger. I’ve been in dangerous situations and know that He alone provided the counsel and safety that got me through. I’ve never been in combat. An unusual duck… not military but given a rare opportunity to serve in a military hospital for a year of certified clinical pastoral education. Experience ranges from thugs, gunshot wounds, mva-rollovers, drunks, suicides, burn victims, to those with cancer, some who survived and others I call friends who did not. When things got dicey I called for the MPs to flank me when I needed to confront a dangerous person. I loved that.

    As far as my part in leadership, maybe I can ‘smell’ a good leader. That’s about discernment. It might make its way through affirming with a word, handshake, or wink for a leader who just did the right thing, or giving the stink-eye to some jerk officer who just overstepped his bounds and disrespected another soldier just trying to do his/her job in the trauma room.

    Some of my best memories serving as a civilian with military are those quiet one-on-one times with military doctors who grew to trust my judgment and opinion and simply needed a safe and trustworthy person with whom they could bounce around their challenges. Encouragement is organic sustenance. Good leaders need it whether they know it or not. I can serve that way.

    I thank God for the precious and treasured opportunities to be the very last person whom a human being saw and touched before he/she closed eyes and died. I’m humbled by the courage of others making their journeys and fighting their battles.

  8. Cathy, you and I need to talk. The interesting thing here is this, when I think of this Great Nation, I do not believe everybody should be in Military. But, I do think, each of us should find our place to serve. We all have gifts and they should be offered to this Nation. I do*not*think the good• Lord gave you a gift, for you to keep to yourself. It takes a very gifted person to work in the realm of medicine or anywhere in the medical support area. It takes a very special wisdom to work within the Military Medical arena. I have a very deep respect for the people who can work in the Military/Veteran Hospital or clinic setting. I do not believe the Lord wasted any gifts with you. If you look at the heart of this issue, you will see an interesting word,*discipline*. The interesting thing is this, the word, discipline, has its roots in an Aramaic word. That word is “disciple”, this is a term that was used to describe, not a student, but a life long learner.

    You look at your position and see just the medical aspect of it, I look at that same position and see the courage that it takes to face each new problem. If one of those soldiers were injured, you would be the type of person they would want as part of their medical support team. Don’t give me the bit about fighting your battles, if you think about it, you are fighting their battles, on one level or another. As the old saying goes, “What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.”

    Cathy, I am not talking off the top of my head, but out of the experience. It is an amazing thing to read your medical records and understand them. The Military thought when I left the Military, I would probably not live the year out in 1969. If I did, I would have been a paraplegic or even quadriplegics. In many ways, they were sending me home to die. I had a massive spinal infection that went through my whole central nervous system up to my brain. I had massive headache’s and earache’s that they could not control. Then, one night, both of my eardrums ruptured. This was not caused by a cold or otis media, it was caused by encephalitis. What caused the eardrum ruptures? According to my military records, they determined it was spinal fluid. It was so bad, it blew out the ossicles or the two small bones in your inner ear, they are gone. Cathy, my experiences, tell me that you are a very special person.

  9. Grumpy, you have quite a story that you are telling, but it appears NOT to be finished here. I appreciate your affirmation, but might you tell us more about how you are doing since 1969?

    We hold the same understanding of discipleship. I never plan to stop learning and finding ways to use my gifts. I believe that “We are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works which God himself prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10) and am eager to hear more about how you are following as a disciple.

  10. Hi Cathy, this is not, so much a story, but “His-story”. There is much in my life, that I am not proud of, but is still a part of my life. I cannot just deny it, because it is historical fact. Lady, understand something, I know what it means to fight with the soldier for that same soldier’s life. People have a perception of what a certain Military Base’s Mission, but they don’t know everything going on inside that same base. Lackland Air Force Base, was such a place. In my travels, there was a point in time, when I came*back*to Lackland. The main purpose of Lackland was Air Force Basic Training, but there were many different schools on the base with many different Nations represented on that base. For me, my earlier post and their consequences will be with me for the rest of my life. I am 100% Totally and Permanently Disabled. No, I am not angry or in denial of it. I see you as a very important component in our Military Strategy. I have seen the young man who come back from the battlefield and see their wounds, both seen and unseen. I have been with the young men, who came back from Viet Nam. Some of the men, were able to find a path through this time. But sadly, I found there were many who could not find that path. Therefore, they took matters into their own hands and committed suicide. At the time, I did not know everything that I was dealing with in my own life. I would later find out, about the extent of the damage to my own body. But that damage, I would later find out, kept me out of trouble. I wouldn’t dare ask for a second opinion. It was a tool in the Master’s hands, that I would later learn to appreciate. You now begin to understand the reason, I see you as an important warrior in this battle. You are like any other soldier in this war. Cathy, I just want to say one more thing, to you and your family, “Merry Christmas”.

  11. Hi Cathy,

    Like many Veterans, I tend to stay silent about those years between 1969 and 2010. I will not give specific dates, but basic trends in my life. When I first came out of the military, I could not keep a job, but nobody would give me a reason. There were different events that caused some real problems. People in the neighborhood did not understand what happened to me. But for that matter, neither did I. I voluntarily went to different doctors to try to get some answers, but nothing worked. Then, on a summer day, I had a massive grand mal seizure. This put me in the hospital for a long time, part of it, I was in a deep coma. The doctors had already called my family and told them, we don’t think he’s going to survive. Then, one day, I woke up and came out of the coma. The doctors could not really explain what happened to me or my family. I was then sent to a hospital clinic and an old doctor came in to see me. He looked at everything in my post military history and he was equally confused. At this point, I started to talk about my experiences in the military. He sat down and wrote a list of addresses for me to write with a copy of my DD-214 papers and when I got my replies, he told me not to open them. He said when you get the paperwork, I want you to make an appointment and you and I are going to talk. Well, I got all my papers in a package format, I didn’t open anything and I went to the clinic. Doc started reading my military medical records, from different sources. They should have been the same, they were not. He was the first one to start making sense out of all of this. He was the first one, to explain, my “Medical Discharge” was not because of a persistent ear infection. The discharge was based on spinal damage caused by a massive spinal infection, which the military neglected to inform me, either in writing or verbally. The old Doc sent a copy of his findings to the VA and to the US District Court. Under the “Privacy Act of 1974”, it is unlawful for the US Government to maintain an inaccurate record when it comes to benefits. But once the VA got the information, they started to work on the process for me to get disability. The US Court did not need to get involved in this situation. But periodically, I get a letter or an e-mail from the Court, to keep them apprised of any problems. The VA had been working fairly well for me, I’m not saying there have been no problems. I’m saying any problems we have been able to work through and get answered.

    Cathy, it has been important to learn to work within the system. I see this same trait in your life. The VA has really blown my mind, what’s left of it. They will be putting up an “Enhanced VA Clinic” in my hometown. This is not like the Old VA Clinic, I’ve talked with my Congressman, and he tells me, they will be using “Telemedicine” from this local clinic, for me this is ideal.

    There were years of helping other Vets, even when I needed help myself. I have seen things, I cannot begin to believe. I cannot expect you to believe unless you have seen them. This is the reason for the comment, earlier, about all of this being tools in the hands of the “Master”.

  12. Thank you, Grumpy, for sharing. Reading what you’ve written had me thinking what a nightmare this all must have been, but then more importantly you give credit for your overcoming all this to the Master.

    You give yourself the name “Grumpy” but you aren’t really that grumpy, because you are in a place peace and demonstrate the ability to share the good news of your circumstances with others and God’s part in it, even here on this blog.

    God’s Blessings to you, Merry Christmas, and I wish for you God’s Abundance in the coming year.

  13. Cathy,

    You’re quite welcome, *Lady*. Facts are facts, that’s just the way is. What do you say?

    “Grumpy”, was a handle given to me by an old friend *many* years ago. I have had the joy of playing with it and not hurting anyone. People, like you, would say, “You’re not that grumpy.” My reply, “Do you want me to be grumpy, it can be easily arranged?” They would always answer, “No thank you.” But then, I met a Doc and a Nurse, who had an equal sense of humor. The Nurse would ask me, “How are you?” My reply, “Oh, just about as Grumpy as always!” She would say, “But, you’re not that Grumpy?” I would reply, “Do you want me to be Grumpy?” She would then chuckle and reply, “Do you want to see how many ways a Nurse can get even?” My response would be, “No, thank you ma’am. You asked me how I was doing. I said, I was as Grumpy,* As Always*.” She would then take me in to the Doc’s office and he was the same way about it. One day, I went in for an appointment and she handed me my records and said, “Open it.” I opened it and on top, there was a Photoshoped certificate, stating that I was a “Board Certified Pain in the A**” and their signatures were on the back. In fact, every doctor or nurse or nurse practitioner who has worked on me, has signed off on the certificate. To put it mildly, I almost died laughing, they were good people.

    The Greek language is a very precise language, in fact, some things are not very well translated into English. They had a complete tense called, the Aeorist tense, we translated into the past perfect tense in English but actually, there is a great deal more. As they looked at it, this was a verb that was happening in an eternal sense. It has forever happened, it is for ever happening and if will be for ever happening, all in the same sense. This is the way I see my relationship with the Master.

    Cathy, I would say, I am the most fortunate man on this earth. But like freedom, freedom is not free, somebody had to pay for it, in one way or another.

  14. Quartermaster, I went to sleep, but I realized it was a study in futility. The Admiral that I referred to earlier, her name was Grace Hopper. In your earlier comment you made some very good points, that I believe are factual. But I still believe the teaching of leadership is more on a principle level, not a method level. I personally believe Brad makes some good points on the issue of the “loneliness of leadership”, it must be a considered concepts in our leaders’ thinking about their own approach to the subject. It is very important that you brought in the historical view, but is not the complete historical view. I would dare say GEN George Patton changed after “D-Day Invasion”. Within the public knowledge of our invasion, there were different components, some public and some not so public. In fact, some of the not so public operations caused a great deal of grief for Eisenhower and the British people. The other thing, which you have said about leadership, and its relationship to both people and logistics. In this case, timing is everything. The Nazis were trying to figure out where the effect is going to come from, Rommel figured if there was going to be an attack, GEN George Patton would lead it. But Eisenhower wanted to keep Rommel guessing where he was going to attack from, will you be Norway, Italy o•r Calais? But General Patton didn’t have the supplies to mount the attack. Therefore, he went to Eisenhower to ask about supplies. Eisenhower brought Patton to Calais as bait. Patton was not thrilled with his role, but his role was essential to the overall victory of the operation. Patton, I don’t think fully accepted the role that Eisenhower had planned for him. At one point, Patton went to Eisenhower to express his concerns about the lack of supplies. Eisenhower and Patton went out behind the woodshed and had a little “Chat”. This was part of the planning.

    1. Admiral Grace Hopper. High ranking. Extremely gifted individual. Wrote the COBOL language that sorta changed the world — especially for business and technology along with a few other leaps into technology. Don’t know how much of a leader she was.

    2. Patton lacked a command, not supplies. He was assigned the fictional First US Army Group (FUSAG) that was a ‘dummy’ operation intended to deceive the Germans into believing we would attack at Calais. They were already fighting up the Italian peninsula, though they did also make some effort to convince the Germans they would attack Norway. Patton complained about the lack of supplies much later after he had command of Third Army, when Montgomery got the bulk of the supplies for Market Garden and Patton got very little.

  15. Well, Gracie didn’t sit down and write the whole thing by herself. She led the team that wrote it. She laid a lot of the groundwork for computing in the services. Maybe not the leadership of a platoon or company commander, but I’ve always heard good things about her as an officer.

  16. Brad, I believe you’re right, Gracie only led the team in the development of COBOL. The comment about her being a good officer, that would all depend upon where you were in her “Chain of Command”. Her obituary from 1/1/91, said that she could be, “contentious.” My personal opinion is this, I do not believe her greatest value was COBOL, but more about information sharing and the ways he could be done. She also helped us to understand the magnitude of this wondrous thing called a computer.

  17. Thirty years ago when I was lecturing management information systems coursework in a university the textbooks gave Grace the credit for the development of COBOL. Of course we also gave credit to Jacquard with his loom as being the first computer. My comment above was sloppy-language when I said Grace “wrote” COBOL because it would be obvious that she used a team of folks. But COBOL was quite a clever development and Grace gets the credit for her innovation and creativity. I wrote & designed systems for COBOL code for years. I loved when one platform I coded & designed for permitted us to embed relational database code within it. Major slick stuff back then.

    I also knew and coded in Assembly level language for the IBM System 370 mainframes which was extremely efficient code that peeked and poked at system level records and data. Each Assembler instruction was equivalent to one machine level instruction. For practice, we had to translate Assembly into hexadecimal and then into binary, mostly so that we would understand how the internals worked and be able to ‘debug’ programs that failed or executed with unexpected results. Yea — reading core dumps was fun stuff. I was a debugger for university students also. Grace was the first person to coin the phrase “debug.”

    The creativity of Grace is exemplified in how she came up with COBOL language that would be easy to read and understand. It was like English. Each COBOL instruction was a collection of Assembly level/machine-level instructions. But students who did not know the internals of computers could fall on their face if they only knew COBOL. Just because the instructions were English-like certainly did not mean that the computer understood English, but you would be surprised how many students needed to have us demonstrate this. We debuggers helped students to understand this by forcing core-dumps with the Assembly level code included when students’ COBOL programs abnormally terminated. Then they got to see the real beauty of Grace Hopper’s innovation.

    It does not surprise me that she earned the “contentious” description as a high-ranking officer in the military during years in a male-dominated world AND involved with technology. I’m sure she had plenty of resistance to what she envisioned and made her goal. Good for her. Call her a leader if you want, but many of the most talented computer geeks I knew and worked with for years were the worst possible people to be leaders or managers of people. Maybe Grace was an exception.

  18. Hi Cathy and Brad, the problem with leadership is this, people can not look at it in a generic sense. Brad, you look at leadership through of Military set of eyes, but leadership is*very complex subject*, then just Military. Cathy, Grace was much more than just COBOL. She started us in the concept of this thing called, “Information”. In Grace’s mind, information was not a vague or abstract subject. It had an actual product, with actual costs, benefits and consequences, for right or wrong information. If today’s Soldier is going to get the*right*information, Grace wanted us to approach it as a science and not so much as a hobby. If today’s Military robotics are growing to work autonomously, they need correct information. We need to understand this as a battlefield, just like any other one, But this one, dwells within the mind. Now, both of you bring different skills of leadership to the battlefield. Cathy, I think Brad has an understanding, maybe not completely, but that is in his role. He just wants it to work the way it should.

    Brad, I believe Kathy is feeling like she’s in another world speaking a foreign language, even though she’s at home. The people around her don’t really understand about this stuff called, “Lines of code”. This is the reason that when I talk about warfare, I don’t use terms like “COIN”, I am most likely to use a term like this, “Full-Spectrum Warfare”. This is the reason I wish we would have a Congressional Declaration of War for this Global War on Terrorism. On 9/11, this is the route we should have taken, according to the US Constitution. No, George W. Bush decides on the War Powers Act. The difference is monumental, he sends the Military to war and the civilian populace, he tells them to go shopping. I think this with the biggest error that we could have made, because this is going to be a multi generational war. We need to bring the whole Nation into this war

    In many ways, both of you are important to this long term effort, you are just doing different tasks.

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