Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Where are the Leaders?

Just because someone is in a powerful position doesn't mean he or she is a leader.


I am very thankful I was born and raised in America. I can't think of a better place to live or a better system wherein to raise my family.

My great grandfather Julius was a Lithuanian immigrant. His first boss assaulted him while pushing Julius to a production record laying railroad tracks. After being stuck with a long pin in his backside, Julius, nicknamed "Bear" for his 18.5 inch neck, arms, and calves, turned and cold-cocked his abusive foreman.

Fearing deportation, or worse, Julius sprinted to his sponsor's apartment (in those days, in order to gain entry to the United States, immigrants had to pass rigorous physical exams and be supported by a family whose innate incentive was to make the new person self sufficient).

Hiding and shaking in his closet, the police arrived and escorted Julius to the courts where his sponsor and interpreter explained to the judge my ancestor's defense. The foreman, with his mangled nose and face, explained his side of the story.

The judge turned to the foreman and reprimanded him for assaulting a good worker, for creating a hostile environment. The judge stated new members of our society should be treated as our country's finest resources.

The judge then turned to Julius and told him his acts were justified. The judge also apologized for the foreman's abusive acts. In response, Julius stated, and repeated throughout his life: "this is a great county!"

Julius became a successful real estate investor and developer.

He raised four children, and became his community's patriarch, building its church, community center, and school.

Why do I share this story?


The collective goodness of our society is under scrutiny these days.


Crisis in the financial sector, and the government's bailout, makes us question these leaders' character and competence. How could these firms' leaders be so incompetent? Would it be more prudent for governing bodies to monitor these investment firms and prevent collapse prior to bailing them out? Why bail them out if the firms were allowed to conduct business with little or no regulation?

Major flaws in presidential and vice presidential candidates highlight flaws in their selection process, and the media's integrity.

Even one of my former employers, a venerable football coach who preached humility, is being attacked for putting his ego and inability to step down ahead of the team's well being.

My corporate clients refer their very qualified family members to me for career coaching. We develop creative solutions despite the lack of opportunities stemming from poor leadership.

Few free enterprise opportunities are found in states where the government is the largest employer. Companies do not flock to areas where taxes and utilities are high, where labor is contentious, and where the legislature has a bad reputation.

As a nation, it feels like we are being stuck in our collective backsides by corrupt people in powerful positions. Yet, as in Julius' case, there appears to be no wise and benevolent leader protecting our interests.

In the brief time since my great grandfather came to the United States, its leadership seems to have deteriorated. The good traits trusted institutions taught, and my neighbors practiced, included selflessness, honesty, self criticism, and humility. They are overshadowed by current stories describing corporate greed, narcissism, selfishness, lies, and self promotion. Following suit, these behaviors appear more often in society.

Corporations are not totally at fault. The country's purported best universities teach, and demonstrate, a comparable pattern of short term, selfish acts, but they are not reported. When new university, and other "not for profit", presidents are selected, rather than demonstrate true leadership and be expected to solely influence their new constituents, they bring in henchmen, just like their weak corporate counterparts, to invoke fear and retribution for anyone not toeing the party line.

This is the antithesis of leadership, and I hear about it every week. This practice creates lemmings, and ultimate failure. Real iconoclasts are cast aside. These communities create followers who sound the same, look the same, and think the same. Actually, they don't think, they regurgitate. Crisis, exemplified by disasters in The Space Shuttle, in The Big Dig, and now on Wall Street, ensues.


So what's the answer?

In Julius' era, there was a clearer sense of truth, or agreement on what was right and wrong. Clear judicial goals, roles, and processes facilitated healthier relationships, and fostered a collectived commitment towards common causes; namely, the country's viability and sustainability.

I witness this collective goodness when people reach outside of themselves to help a cause, or someone in need. It's productive, and it makes them happy.

Leadership, to me, taps a collective truth and inspires people to act in selfless and positive ways, with constructive outcomes. It builds more leaders and good results.

And, the best way to select a leader is to look for these factors in his or her past.


Dr. Brian A Schwartz said...

Hi Matt and thank you for the poignant reminder of what has made our country great. As career counselors/coaches, the work is and should be political as our clients are faced with all of what you describe so well in your comment. How do we help our individual clients level the playing field with a corporate and governmental and yes, even not-for-profit political structure where power accrues to people who all too often abuse it and to the detriment of their employees and the communities or constituencies they serve.

Our Constitution's preamble, the introduction to the greatest social contract in the history of mankind, states that as citizens, we are guaranteed Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. Freud aptly pointed out that Happiness or mental health is predicated on two legs, Love and Work. Some of us have elaborated that love of our Work is the axiom to live by and we Work Hedonists help our clients find their essence and then assist them in extrapolating that out to the world of work.

However, as citizens, we are facing the most awesome assault on our Constitution and rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights under the mis-leadership of our current crew of politicians who in turn often reflect the mis-leadership found in corporations, non-profits, universities, school systems, unions and the lobbying class that tries to control all of these. Our politicians are often shills for selfish interests who wouldn't recognize the common good if they bumped into it on the way to the bank. This is a time to throw the scoundrels out but with an organized political movement to make sure the best of who we are as a people takes front and center. Since 2004 I have served on the Steering Committee of Democracy for America as an extension of who I am as a professional psychologist and consultant. There are chapters in every congressional district who were called to arms by the visionary but imperfect campaign of Governor Howard Dean as a non-partisan call to take back our Republic from the scoundrels who have driven us into debt, international ignominy for disastrous invaisions and torture and the overall squandering of our moral and material capital, all in the name of patriotism and national security.

These are dangerous times for all of us and our legacy is on the proverbial line. My hope is that each of us does our job in at least participating in the electoral process to find those few who are genuinely working in the interests of us citizens and turning out those who are deceptive, crooked, ethically challenged and who represent the same selfish interests that have created an unholy mess for our country and yes, the world economy which has relied on us.


suz4500 said...

Hello Matt,

Great thoughts! I wish there was a simple answer to explain away how the culture of our country and many businessess have changed from selflessness to self-absorption.

Why is it that true leaders who could don't want to, while those who can't continue to rise to the top until they are "found" out usually at the expense of others.

Why is that we toss out employees like we toss out plastic bottles? What takes people from asset to ass in the blink of an eye with no hope for redemption?

Why is it that our leaders profess compassion and practice indifference?

The culture of an organization is established by it's leadership and practices and if the poor leadership is actually recognized can be changed rather quickly with a good selection process using past behavior as a future predictor.

Changing the developed culture of our country is far more complex and problematic. Our information is filtered. We have to formulate our opinions from sound bites. And, after we make what we think is a sound choice based on past behavior, arrogance, power, ego, and greed rear their ugly heads.

You're right America is still the best place to be, but I think we need a Boston Tea Party that reincarnates the articulate, moral and compassionate founders that truly put their country first.