For most of 2011, national lawmakers in Washington, DC have invested what seems to have been the vast majority of their time, and our attention, on the need to get the debt ceiling raised and the nation’s revenues and expenses aligned. Meanwhile, the economy flounders because business executives in the United States, and increasingly globally, have little or no confidence in the direction or stability of the legal and economic arena. Uncertainty like that makes strategic investing in jobs and in job-creating expansion risky and seemingly unwise. The debt ceiling crisis is a symptom of a much more difficult problem, the mismatch between overspending and too little revenue.
Political rhetoric out of Washington, DC is simply lip service meant to placate the itching ears of the electorate. Politicians have devolved into re-election machines focused on the next election cycle as soon as the last one is over. Most members of the U.S. House and Senate simply have no experience or education that would allow them to create effective policy for most of the topics they must address. So, with no basis for for developing, debating, and implementing effective solutions to the problems the nation needs them to address, elected and appointed decision makers in Washington seem inclined to simply parrot back the words the electorate and self-serving advisors and lobbyists beg them to say.
In the July 18, 2011 issue of Time, Joel Stein reflected on air travel with children and other sometimes-awkward realities. Mr. Stein suggested that airlines offer a section at the rear of coach for passengers traveling with young children. On a flight to Tokyo today, a passenger reminded me of the article; Mr. Stein recognized the realities of air travel for those of us who do not travel with children of our own, but frequently travel with passengers who travel with their children, and the realities of those parents who travel with their children. Sometimes, passengers who travel without their children simply act like children. Sometimes, a reality check is healthy, but we do not always see consensus on what reality is.
Somehow, the debate on whether to raise the debt ceiling in the U.S. and, if so, by how much has devolved into politics. It is no longer about differences between political parties because, and the reality is, consensus within the two dominant parties in Washington, DC is, at best, poorly defined and, more likely, hard to find at all. Pundits want to make the debate a Republican versus Democrat battle, but strong disagreement on a way forward seems just as present with each party as across party lines.
From my previous postings, it may be clear that I have an interest, even a fascination, with the ongoing discussions of job creation by people in positions of leadership about job creation. I posted a question on LinkedIn last week asking how many of our senators and representatives in Washington, DC have a background suggesting experience in creating jobs. I raised the question because evidence indicating such experience seems thin after more than two years of conversation about economic recovery and the need to reduce unemployment through job creation.
Since several people responded that I raised a good question and nobody seemed able to answer the question, I spent part of my 4th of July weekend reviewing the biographies of each member of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, as found at house.gov and senate.gov. The chart below shows the combined number from both chambers.
In these charts, I use the term “politician” to mean anybody whose indicated background includes only positions involved in negotiating and defining public policy or having no experience other than in those positions since 1980. I use the term “entrepreneur” to mean experience owning, building, or starting a small business.
An article by Omar Waraich, Mark Benjamin, Massimo Calabresi, and Mark Thompson in the May 23, 2011 issue of Time, on the topic of U.S.-Pakistan relations included a provocative quote. The authors quoted Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, a person elected to a position of leadership in Pakistan, as follows: “If public opinion is against [the U.S.], then I cannot resist it to stand with [the U.S.]. I have to go with public opinion.”
In the above quote, the leader seems to be following. When the leader becomes follower, the follower becomes leader. The Prime Minister, admittedly out of context, seems to be saying that his opinion makes no difference. While I believe that leaders in many contexts forego their self interests for the good of the people they serve, disregarding one’s personal opinion to align with public opinion gives the appearance of concern with re-election rather than direction.
Leaders should be mindful of public opinion and not simply or necessarily give into public opinion. Leaders should take people where they need to go and not simply or necessarily where they want to go. Leaders need to make hard decisions about necessary change, changes which may require people to think about the past, the present, and the future in new ways with new consequences. Leaders need to help people embrace a vision for a future different from the present and the past. Leaders who fail to do these basic elements of leadership may be seen as poor leaders.
In a letter to the editor in the June 2, 2011 Wall Street Journal, Charles Plushnick of Brooklyn, New York cites the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling calling for the release of prisoners from California’s prisons as an example of failed leadership in California’s statehouse. Plushnick observed that neither former Governor Arnold Schwarzeneger nor former-now-current Governor Jerry Brown were or are capable of the kind of leadership demonstrated by former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, who increased the capacity of his city’s jails when faced with a similar challenge three decades ago.
Plushnick may be accurate in his assessment of the comparative leadership capabilities of the mayor and two governors. Plushnick seems to avoid the more compelling story of failed leadership. Failed leadership created the overcrowding in our correctional institutions. The problem is not that current facilities lack the needed capacity but that the demand for housing in correctional facilities dwarfs current capacity. That the demand for correctional facilities is so high is the real evidence of failed leadership.
In 1991, news around the United States seemed dominated by news of and riots following Rodney King and the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). In the aftermath, Rodney King asked everybody in general and nobody specifically “Why can’t we just get along?” in 2011, the same question still applies, but now to a larger, even global audience. Why does it seem so difficult to co-exist on this planet we each call home?
A popular bumper sticker seems to declare “Co-exist” as if it is possible to simply will it to be. Can we co-exist without getting along? Would that mean agreeing to disagree, letting others maintain their opinions and visions while we maintain or pursue our own? Recently in an interview on CNN, Rodney King noted that people who change things or are the focal point of cultural change become targets, implying coexistence may be at least challenging if we want change. On the other hand, might it not also be the case that coexistence may not be possible without change?
In some contexts, it may be possible to simply decide to co-exist or get along. In other contexts, we might be able to individually start the process, but not complete the process without some cooperation. For us to co-exist, we may need to collaborate on a shared vision for the future and that may require coming together and working together until we reach agreement or consensus on the way forward and how to get there.
I choose my leaders in a variety of ways, by acts of commission and of omission. I elect some people to positions of leadership and whether I voted for them or not I still should expect them to lead. Other people assume positions of leadership that directly or indirectly influence my life and its quality with no input from me whatsoever. It may even be possible for a person to be in a position of leadership without my choosing to follow their lead. Whether I follow the leader or not, I still have expectations for their leading.
I expect leaders to communicate their vision for the future. Leaders should be able to provide me with a rationale for their vision. Help me embrace the vision. Let me understand the underlying assumptions and the risk factors associated with the vision and not simply the asserted solution to the proposed problem or the opportunity.
While I am interested in specific programs and policies, I find it helpful when I understand the current and proposed context for proposed actions. Where are we trying to go and what might need to happen to get there is somehow more useful to me than simply proposing or expressing support for starting or ending services or modifying organizational structure.
Change may be the context for leadership and relative stability the context for management. Leaders define reality (DePree, 1989) and managers sseemingly deal with facts. Leaders provide vision, the new reality, and managers produce the details. Leaders navigate uncertainty while managers mitigate risk. Perhaps it follows then that managers use logic and leaders play in the domain of our emotions.
Change involves uncertainty which builds anxiety that stimulates our emotions. When leaders promote change associated with a new vision for a new reality, leaders need to remember the uncertainty, anxiety, and emotional components of change. As we watch states like Wisconsin (others will follow) and nations like Bahrain, Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kenya, Uganda, Ivory Coast, and Sierra Leone (with more to come) address change or its possibility, if not promise, a critical point to watch will be how leaders address the emotional response that arises on all sides of the discussion, debate, or battle for or against a new vision for a new reality.
Some leaders may stimulate emotions like anger, fear, and resentment. Other leaders may provoke joy, hope, and courage. Who does what will depend on the leader and the target audience and, of course, the particular vision that leader champions.
An ongoing study of leadership roles, practices, and behaviors explores distinctions between individuals who disclose that they personally or their companies were financially harmed in the recent economic downturn and those who indicate that they or their companies experienced no financial harm. The responses vary by country.
Economic harm seems more likely among residents of Europe and North America than in Africa, Asia, Australia, or South America. Respondents from North America to date see 70% of 280 reporting financial harm while residents of Europe to date see 58% of 36 reporting a negative financial impact from the economic downturn. Africa, Asia, Australia, and South America reported 43%, 47%, 42%, and 71% respectively. If leading during economic recovery is different from leading at other times, and residents of Europe and the Americas are more likely to have experienced economic trauma than residents in the rest of the world, then we might expect leadership in Europe and the Americas to look differently than leadership elsewhere as the economic recovery proceeds.
Two somewhat universal themes emerge from research and experience. The first theme is that leaders rise to the surface. People display leadership that is disconnected to the position that they hold. When looking for leaders in organizations, we should not limit our search to people in somewhat traditional positions of leadership. It may be that future holders of positions of leadership come out of the ranks of leaders whose leadership is unrelated to their position. At the moment, these leaders have followers and these followers, rather than organizations or communities, give them power or authority based on the value that they bring.