Ken Goldstein believes we can triumph through hard times, but only with leaders that are selfless and accountable.
Some things are not right. Given the current economic turmoil around us, there seems to be an abundance of things that are not right. It’s almost eerie how the public debate ebbs and flows as we near year-end from one troubling scenario to another. A quick gaze through recent headlines gives even the most hardened cynic pause in light of the values so many people with different points of view might otherwise consider to be common ground.
Our government is teetering on the edge of being unable to govern. It is almost impossible for the average American to believe that party divide has accelerated to such a level of dysfunction that we can no longer take for granted the day-to-day work of ensuring the well-functioning of basic social institutions. We granted Congress the opportunity to redeem its inexcusable failure in not reaching agreement earlier this year on the debt ceiling through an extended negotiation through this week via an appointed Super Committee — and they failed again. They literally gave up, threw up their hands and said sorry, we can’t find a way to do this, “we” cannot agree. The “we” referenced is the “we in Congress, not the “we who elected them.” It is not so much that they failed to make “a deal” as much as it is that they failed to prove the vitality of our democracy, that at its core our celebrated process of governing by, for, and of the people is dependable. Government failed, and that is not OK.
Last week we learned that one former Speaker of the House does not see an issue with accepting a seven-figure payday from now bankrupt Freddie Mac for providing consulting services of an undefined value other than to say its business model was problematic. Another former Speaker of the House does not think it necessary to respond to the question of whether being invited to participate in an IPO is a potential conflict of interest for an elected official entrusted with legislating financial policies. Neither of those is OK.
We also recently got to hear the lavishly compensated CEOs of Fannie and Freddie tell a Congressional panel that they needed to have discretion to continue to pay taxpayer funded bonuses to prevent further brain drain in their organizations. What talent is it that they need to protect? They are bankrupt. Can they be less bankrupt with better paid people to mop up the remains? National unemployment is still above 9%, many of those people with accounting degrees and MBAs who really want to work. Bonuses paid from tax dollars are not OK.
Police at UC Davis assaulted non-violent demonstrators with pepper spray. We have seen the video; there was no threat to the police, the demonstrators were exercising their Constitutional right to free speech and assembly. For that, they were attacked by armed authorities. That is not OK.
MF Global “can’t find” over a billion dollars of client money. Their recent bankruptcy filing reveals sloppy and incomplete accounting throughout a period of aggressive and speculative bets on European debt. The firm’s CEO was a former Governor, Senator, and CEO of one of the most substantial financial firms in the world. That is not OK.
Students at a university rioted because their head football coach was terminated in light of a child abuse investigation where he did not report allegations to legal authorities. They rioted — destroyed public property — because they were angry their football team might not have the leadership to continue winning. That is not OK.
We also were asked to believe that pizza is a vegetable and should be classified as such for children in our schools. Even Kermit the Frog found this appalling (for those who missed it, last weekend the Muppets dropped by SNL). As Seth and Kermit expertly teed it up: Really, the food lobby actually thinks this is acceptable marketing? No, that is not OK.
These are just a sample of the kind of news we hear daily, as if none of it is out of the ordinary, and all of it will somehow correct itself. We are numb to hearing of crisis and scandal, and as angry as we become, we turn the page knowing that the next story will break soon enough, and we have to keep our wits about us. Many of us wonder if these are extraordinary times, or just another chapter in our nation over which we will triumph.
I do think we will triumph, that the bad news can’t go on forever, but I see a very definite trend that will have to become primary before we get from here to there. What is missing is leadership — true leadership, a sense that management is not good enough, that trust is a higher virtue and brings with it a burden of selfless decision-making. We won’t get from here to there with party politics, blame, opportunism, poorly constructed argument, well-crafted media bites, or even anger. We will get there when we chose courageous, well-versed leaders — government, business, and social – who have chosen the path of leadership for the right reasons, where integrity in articulating a vision and administering an agenda far outweighs the perks and power of the office. The rewards of leadership for those who have enjoyed it as intended are more intrinsic than extrinsic, much less tangible than we imagine from headlines of cynical manipulation, but until we elevate leadership that embraces a giving ethos into high level authority, we aren’t going to get from here to there. We have to be involved in the selection process by the act of choosing to follow, and we have to demand better. If we don’t, we’ll continue to be assaulted with more of the same — just like the pepper spray.
As I have written before, it is an honor and a privilege to lead. If someone chooses to lead, they consistently must accept their responsibilities de facto with the interests of others put before their own gain. When they do not, they compromise our trust and the fabric of social interaction suffers injury. Let it happen too often and the very institutions we most cherish can lose all their meaning and authority. This is not lofty, it is everyday behavior. Leadership means accepting trust and being willing to be held to the standard of evaluation for that trust. All leaders can benefit from a remedial lesson in why they have their jobs; if they fail to remind themselves, we need to help jog their memories.
This week we celebrate Thanksgiving. We express appreciation for the blessings in our lives, for all we have that is good, for the good fortune we enjoy. That does not mean we offer reprieve to the status quo or give a pass to those who have forgotten what they owe as a result of asking for our trust. If someone has chosen as a life commitment to protect and to serve, he or she needs to be held accountable for that commitment. They are responsible for the portfolio they have accepted to oversee or lead. We are responsible to ensure that they act in the public interest where humility outweighs dissonance as most befits this gracious holiday. Yes, really.