Saturday, February 9, 2008

Leadership, Not Change, Part 1

February 9, 2008

The talk during this political sports season is all about change.
I believe I understand the average citizens’ attraction to the broad concept: there is a real desire to see our government respond more to the nation as a whole and less to the whirling confusion that sometimes seems to exist inside the beltway. Over the last 15 years, while there has been a good deal of change, most especially the Newt Gingrich led effort to control government spending, and of course the War on Terror, in many respects there has been little change in Washington, particularly in the ‘feel’ of Washington.
Mark Steyn, in a recent article in National Review (January 28th, 2008) made an excellent point – as he often does – that few people actually want change. Rather, what they often want is a change from all the backbiting and carping. He also makes the key point, and those who know me will recognize that I have made similar points, that one of the reasons President Bush has become so unpopular is that he has made choices, that he has led. And by definition, leading means that some things won’t be chosen and some people won’t be pleased and there will be frustration and anger, etc. Real change requires tough choices and that will make a lot of people unhappy.
It is worth noting that the average citizen sees official Washington as a remote, uncaring place; inhabited by remote, uncaring people. In many respects it is. Remember that despite the low ‘performance rating’ of President Bush, Congress has a rating only 2/3rds that of Bush. More to the point, the rating has been in the same range for much of the last 15 years. And, with the exception of the uniformed services, few believe that the multitude of government agencies and departments are either the height of efficiency and effectiveness, or that they are easy to get along with.
So, to the extent that a candidate wishes to change that, it is fair to say that the bulk of the citizens agree with him. But, frankly, that is fairly insignificant. This amounts to simply asking for something you already purchased. Which leads back to the central issue: What do we mean when we say ‘change’? And is that what we need?
It is important to issue a warning: let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Few people living in this great country want to eliminate, or even alter in any serious way, the Constitution. We can all talk about adding this or that amendment, or perhaps altering or rescinding an amendment, and the subject of taxation often raises this issue. But, no sane citizen wants change that harms the Constitution itself or even substantially alters it. So, in that sense, we don’t want change. We have a good (great) thing, we know it, and we want to keep it. From ‘far right’ conservative to ‘far left’ liberal, there are few people in this country who want that kind of change. We may argue like any good family, but do in fact respect and cherish the Constitution.
So, What do we want?
The answer is fairly simple: Leadership.
There is a world of difference between ‘change’ and ‘leadership,’ and the key is that change, in a practical, everyday sense is used to hide lack of progress. New bosses, be they corporate or elected officials, take charge and reorganize. New jargon is used, ‘task forces’ are created, and new departments are stood up. But, underneath the confusion and new stationery, little that is substantive takes place. And so, two, four, or even eight years later the same things grind on. And the reason for that is lack of real leadership.
Real leadership is NOT about being in charge, it is about a goal. Leaders define a real goal and point out the way to get to that goal. This is where the challenge starts: If the goal is not grand enough it is simply too easy for the average citizen, who is rightly consumed by the day-to-day task of work and providing for their family, to loose sight of it. Even if it is grand in scope, the average citizen has to be motivated to pursue goal. And that requires constant effort by the Leader. The leader has to communicate the goal and the importance of the goal. Great leaders understand that and as a result are constantly engaging the audience – any audience – with their vision, their goal; they take every opportunity to stay on message (Churchill, Reagan, Pope John Paul II are all superb examples of great leaders who always kept ‘on message.’)
What is it that makes a goal ‘great’ and worthy of the commitment of the bulk of the populace? In a recent forum on strategy a senior figure in the DOD commented that, in the end, everything is economics. He couldn’t be more wrong. As Maslow pointed out, survival, and providing for yourself and then your family can only motivate a person to a certain level of effort. It is only at the top of his hierarchy that we see that which motivates people to do great things. Maslow called it self-actualization, and it was there that people reached their full potential, people who believed that what they were doing was bigger then themselves, that they were making a better world.
Great goals reflect that: to rid the world of fascism, to make the world safe for democracy, to end the soviet Union and free eastern Europe, to send a man to the moon; these are great goals that can stir the heart. Great leaders have great goals that stir the heart.
President Bush had a great goal, that is, one grand in scope and nature (whether you agreed with it or not). His goal was to bring democracy to the Middle East, to replace oppressive regimes with governments selected in free and fair elections, governments that respected the rule of law and provided for the individual liberties of their people. These are grand and noble goals. The American people supported this in 2002 and 2003 and 2004. During that period Bush talked of the effort frequently and the populace remained behind him, and he had a solid margin in his re-election in 2004. But, he failed to maintain the ‘drumbeat’ in his second term, a period which probably required an increased tempo, an increased communication plan, an increased ‘sales pitch’ simply because any plan can quickly become old.
In the case of the US, and the Presidential primaries, there are a host of economic, social and cultural goals, but none 'stir the heart.' These are not the issues that will provide the ‘fulcrum’ for a great leader. A national vision of a 40 MPG SUV doesn't stir the heart; 'putting a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth' does.
The fact is that most political candidates run as 'technicians,' - they will 'fix' the tax code or 'fix' DOD or make SS solvent. OK. These are all tasks that need to be addressed. But they will be quickly reduced to an argument of ‘how’ you fix them. When you really want to energize people, you have to seek to 'self-actualize' them, and that means something that is much bigger than their corner of the world. These issues aren’t. Hence, we are back to the moon race, or the Marine PFC who joins the Marines not for medical and dental coverage, but because he will get to be a super-hero.
Most politicians miss (or avoid) this: they seek to put everything on an economic level where they actually have some capability to satisfy the need. And, in the end, it leaves people frustrated. That is why there is often such an outpouring for candidates who are, or appear, different (Jesse Ventura, Barack Obama, John McCain). Whether they are different is more or less irrelevant as far as attracting voters.
Of course, the fact is that it is relevant as far as actually getting the nation headed in a given direction.
From 1776 to the 1880s we had a major vision (dream) -- conquer and settle the west. It was primarily self-sustaining, and with the exception of land grant and homestead issues, required little active effort by anyone in Washington. In 1860 we -- finally, thank God - added universal liberty. TR added 'global power' in 1902. These became accomplished facts in the latter half of the 20th century. We added on a series of technical 'Everests' -- Flight, space flight, the moon, etc., which can capture the imagination but not the entire nation's efforts. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union we have had little to excite us as a nation. September 11th certainly did, but has since faded.
The result is an arguing over issues, while what everyone really wants is a real goal or two. That isn’t leading: leading gets out in front, identifies a goal, and points out a new direction. This makes some issues irrelevant and also generates new problems, which you accept and plow on, because the real goal is worth it to you. But that requires a leader with real, meaningful goals.


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