Leading from the Soul Part I: Introduction

When I think of great leaders I think of people like Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.  They were people whom against all odds and, moreover, against popular opinion, led society to places it would have never gone without them—to places that established new norms and higher expectations.  Their ideas and convictions were asserted thoughtfully and courageously and they never wavered from their purpose: to improve the lot of humanity.  These leaders spent a great deal of their time alone, reading and deliberating.  These leaders took risks that elevated everyone.  These leaders had a humble sense of self and a clear sense of mission.  When the history books are written about the early 21st century, I believe it will be claimed that while we suffered from economic malaise, global warming, terrorist acts, etc., the cause was not a housing or capital markets crisis, or an addiction to fossil fuels, or declining test scores, rising federal deficits, or even a broken healthcare system, it was rather a debilitating scarcity of leadership.  Leaders today show little, if any, of the characteristics of Lincoln, Gandhi, and King.

Affluence has had much to do with this dearth of leadership.  For the last twenty years or so, since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, we frankly have not needed much leadership. If a difficult question remained unanswered, the consequences were few. Prosperity assured enough slack in the system that mistakes could be absorbed with little pain and no devastation. Evolutionary pressures that might have selected for capable leaders were largely absent.  Foreign affairs columnist for The Financial Times, Gideon Rachman, writes that the post-Cold War days of optimism are over, replaced by a new “Age of Anxiety” that portends a “zero-sum future.”[1] The so-called “Great Recession” that started in August 2007, and the turmoil of a global rebalancing of power that calls into serious question the future of America’s superpower status, means that whatever slack existed in the system is now gone.  Roger Altman and Richard Haas outlined the brutal details of American profligacy and declining American power in the journal of Foreign Affairs where they claimed, it was a lack of political will at home, as opposed to imperial overstretch “that threatens American power and security.”[2] The fact is everything has a consequence again, and leadership is essential.

Historians may also conclude that besides affluence, technology—in spite of all of its many benefits—played its own insidious role in the decline of leadership.  They may find that those digital conveniences we have come to love and dare not live without, which have forced upon us an incessant need to be connected, has pushed leadership aside in favor of distraction and trivialities.  Technology has produced a conversation that is fast, short, and shallow.  It has fooled us about friendship; convincing us we are just a click away from adding a new so-called friend.  Research has been Wiki-fied, which has led to a diminished capacity to search, contemplate, hypothesize, test, reconsider, conclude, and start the search again.  In the process we have lost our sense of method.  Debates—once like symphonies—have been reduced to sound bites and video snippets.  Solving complex problems is no longer the goal; increasing “click-throughs” and “going viral” is all that matters.

These future pages of history can, however, be avoided if we take care to reclaim our capacity for solitude, courage, and moral purpose.  This requires that we shift our behaviors to those that produce depth of thought and origination – that we have the discipline to disconnect.  It requires that we become transcendently courageous and that we focus on the ‘why’ of what we do.  It means that we each must become our own Lincoln, Gandhi, or King.  We can begin by leading from our soul and embracing a conscious discipline of self-restraint and introspection, so that we may regain our purpose and our will.  The process starts with practicing solitude so that we may know ourselves; then summon the courage of our convictions; and remain steadfastly committed to our purposes.

[1] Gideon Rachman, Zero Sum Future (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011).
[2] Roger C. Altman and Richard N. Haas, “American Profligacy and American Power,” Foreign Affairs, 89, no. 6 (November-December 2010): pp. 25-34.
By |2017-05-27T18:28:21+00:00January 24th, 2011|Leadership|0 Comments

A Time to Lead

The events in Tucson this weekend illustrate all too painfully what has become of leadership in America.  The events themselves raise many questions that can and are being debated with (mostly) appropriate vigor.  But what led to the murderous act of Jared Lee Loughner, concerning as it is, is unlikely to produce a clear evaluation of the state of leadership in America.  What will, however, is the careful observation of what comes now: the response of our elected officials.  The early results are not promising.

The conservative Republican response was framed Sunday morning by Congressman Trent Franks of Arizona on Meet the Press, who made three basic claims: this is an act of a lone degenerate; we must not allow him to quell our freedom of speech; and, if we would all just turn our face to God, all will be well. In other words, it’s not our fault, and we must remain both stubborn and righteous.  Shame on you, Mr. Franks.  Demagoguery, however carefully coded, is not leadership.

One thing is known about unstable persons like Mr. Loughner: they are easily led.  In fact, their instability is in itself a cry for leadership.  The good news is they can be led in most any direction – for ill or better. But, we must – all of us – take care to lead, to tip them in the direction of better.  For the most part, leaders today are followers who masquerade as leaders.  They wait to see which way the herd is headed then run fast to get to the front to claim they’re the ones being followed.  This inevitably produces what we see in Congress today and what happened in Tucson on Saturday: a nation at war with itself.

The leadership this country needs now must have the intellect, courage, and moral purpose to move people in new directions; to acknowledge that where we are is dire, where we are going is disastrous, and that what we must do will be as painful as it is necessary.  Running to the front of the herd and spewing demagoguery won’t do it.  Pushing the unstable toward violence is itself culpable. It is time to transcend such foolishness and retire the political jesters who are leading our country closer to the abyss every day.

By |2017-05-23T20:44:21+00:00January 9th, 2011|Leadership|0 Comments

Waging Legitimate Dissent: the Rise of the LDs.

At the center of freedom lies dissent: the capacity to reject the opinion of the majority and/or contemporary orthodoxy. Dissidents who founded the United States also passed a Bill of Rights to protect those who wish to express dissent.  Among other things, dissent is what made America what she is.  Great American dissidents include people like Frederick Douglas, Susan B. Anthony, and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.  By definition, those who dissent take unpopular positions and risk both their social and political membership and, at times, their lives.  Dissidents often say what others are thinking but who are silenced by fear.  Dissidents who prevail in their dissent—whose opinion or position succeeds in overcoming the status quo—are the engines of social and political innovation.  They allow society to lurch forward toward a better future. Today, we suffer from those who masquerade as dissidents as well as those who chant “Yes We Can!” or “No We Can’t!”  It is time to replace this noisy charade with affirmative and legitimate dissent.

Tea Partiers (TPs), or, if you prefer, True Patriots (TPs) are those who rail against our government for spending too much money and infringing on our liberties.  Several rallied in August in Washington DC with the self-ordained Reverend Beck, and last weekend with Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks bunch.  Most TPs want all spending cut or eliminated as long as it doesn’t affect their own benefits, entitlements, or patriotic impulses.  Medicare, Social Security, and Defense spending are sacred—so much for cutting spending.  And, forget about raising taxes, that’s unpatriotic too.  As for liberties, those who know God in the same way they do will enjoy their liberties; those who don’t, won’t.  For TPs, liberty has prerequisites.  In essence, TPs are not dissidents they are conformists.  They are the self(ish)-righteous.

The Blanks are the folks who chant “Yes We Can _____!”  The blank is where the who, what, where, how, and why go.  But, they leave it blank.  (Psssst! President Obama, this is your constituency!  It’s time to fill in the blank!)  Their proposals amount to little more than feel-good platitudes of liberal institutionalism that lack any semblance of specificity.  They’re like the dog that finally caught the bumper of the car it’s been chasing down the street for years, and are suddenly faced with the grim reality of answering “Now what?”  Moreover, they can’t understand why the driver doesn’t stop to congratulate them, and why their fellow canine packmembers aren’t cheering.  While they may have great ideas that might prove helpful, they have yet to realize that dissent is hard and painful work that requires courage, fortitude, and the sacrifice of fame.

The Dolts are the “No We Can’t” crowd—the negative dissenters—who mockingly sit on their un-callused hands at the local Men’s Social Club and practice harrumphing in between declaring “No!”  Picture Senator Mitch McConnell here.  They wear expensive suits to cover a well-earned paunch and haven’t had an original idea since they introduced Everclear into the punchbowl at a Nixon/Agnew campaign party.  The last time they embraced progress was when Viagra hit the market.  Before that it was Velcro.  To Dolts, smartphones are for people without staff.  Reform is an inherently socialist concept that will forever justify the concept of filibuster.  America is great and will remain so as long as we practice regression.  The hope-y change-y bunch is little more than a seasonal nuisance, like having to put one’s seersucker away after Labor Day. Dogmatism is just an appetizer before an entrée of certitude.  Dolts are happy to have the old John McCain back.  That maverick stuff annoyed them.

So, where does that leave us?  Fortunately, the TPs, Blanks, and Dolts leave plenty of room for legitimate dissenters (LDs)—for those who dare to face reality and offer substantive solutions.  An LD’s campaign speech may sound something like this:

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you tonight.  I can assure you that once I’m done speaking you will have heard several things you don’t like.  Once I’m done speaking you will have many reasons to vote for my opponent.  When you go to vote, you may even circle my name on the ballot and write in the margin “Anyone but that guy.”

I’m not here to tell you “yes we can, or no we can’t.”  I’m not here to argue with you about the Constitution, or the Bible, or the Quran.  What I am here to share with you are five things we must do to secure the future of our children and grandchildren – to preserve their opportunity to pursue their own life, liberty, and happiness.

  1. We must terminate Medicare.  Only then will those entrenched interests who benefit the most from this unsustainable system be brought to submit to true reform.  Only then will we be able to provide access to healthcare for every citizen at a reasonable cost.  Let me begin by pledging that I will not accept government provided healthcare if you elect me as your Congressman.
  2. We must terminate Social Security.  Only then can we have a new conversation about how to deal with our aging population and redress the role of family and community in America.  Let me begin by rescinding my own entitlement to Social Security payments in the future.
  3. For the foreseeable future, everyone’s taxes must go up.  Even if we terminate Medicare and Social Security and replace them with sustainable programs, we must reduce our current liabilities to a much lower percentage of our GDP.  I will share that burden with you.
  4. We must withdraw all troops, regardless of their designation—‘combat’, ‘security’, ‘training’, etc.—from both Iraq and Afghanistan, immediately. Iraq and Afghanistan are ventures which have failed and for which there is no reasonable alternative to withdrawal.  Furthermore, we must abolish the myth of America as the global policeman, and forever suspend our imperialist impulse to recast the world in our own image.  This too is unsustainable.
  5. We must immediately launch a Manhattan-project styled program to produce alternative fuels and new distribution systems to eliminate our reliance on fossil fuels.  Not reduce our reliance, eliminate it.  We must completely reinvent our orientation toward energy.

There are many other things we must do to make America strong in education, immigration, infrastructure projects, etc.  But unless we get control of our expenses, our foreign exposure, and our energy needs, we will never be able to address anything else in a reasonable, let alone sustainable manner.

If you want to ‘stay-the-course’ vote for my opponent.  There are those who insist if the captain of the Titanic had just rammed the iceberg head-on, rather than turning to take a glancing blow, the Titanic would have stayed afloat.  To those who continue to embrace false-choices like that I respectfully, and dare I say, legitimately dissent.  I affirm that the iceberg is on the horizon, but I prefer that we chart a new course before it’s too late.  If you agree, please vote for me.

Thank you for listening.

We have witnessed many times throughout history that conformity is dangerous; that there is no such thing as the wisdom of crowds.  (Remember the tulip bulbs.)  As author David Rieff recently wrote in The New Republic, the current political crowds “are studies in the lowest-common-denominator subordination of the individual to the collective and of the thought to the slogan: in short, complexity to simplicity.”[1]  Or, as Albert Einstein said, “He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt.  He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would surely suffice.”

Each of us has a duty to think for ourselves and to reject the comfort of conformance.  We must summon the courage to chart a new course and accept the consequences of our prior foolish choices.  We must reject the sloganeering and invective of popular noisemakers and wage legitimate dissent.  If we do, we will preserve the promise of America.

[1] David Rieff, “The Unwisdom of Crowds,” The New Republic, September 6, 2010, www.tnr.com.
By |2017-05-27T18:33:27+00:00September 14th, 2010|General, Leadership|0 Comments

Contrarians & Outlaws

Our future is, as our past informs, in the hands of contrarians and outlaws (C&Os).  Quantum breakthroughs start with breaking rules and venturing in the opposite direction of conventional wisdom.  This is not hyperbole; it is reality.  If you don’t believe me, please name one great idea, invention, product or service that was born by doing the expected according to the existing norms of the day.  You will quickly find that it is much easier to identify the greatness of the C&Os—of those who thumbed their nose (or other singular digit) at the world and pursued a belief, passion, or wild hair at their own peril.  By doing so C&Os benefit us all, and we sooner or later accept their feat as a new norm.

C&Os are not defined by gender, race, ethnicity, heritage, or religion.  They may or may not be handsome, elegant, or even well educated.  Their common bond is one thing: they reject the status quo.  They question the givens.  They foresee lives made better by re-imagining the world in which they live.  Then, against the advice of experts, they pursue their vision with reckless abandon.  Jesus Christ was a C&O, so was Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.  From Galileo to Einstein and Edison, C&Os consistently rejected what everyone knew for sure and ended up changing our world.  Remember, a couple of thousand years ago, the world was flat, until Aristotle et al noted the spherical shadow of the earth as it passed across the moon. Humans weren’t meant to fly until Orville and Wilbur Wright—against the odds and the gods—proved otherwise.  Computers were supposed to be for governments and large corporations, until guys like Gates and Jobs—both college dropouts—put them in everyone’s pockets.

We could use a few more C&Os today.  Our so-called leaders have been ground into submission by conventional thinkers and know-it-all do-nothings.  They have fallen prey to what novelist and coffee-shop-philosopher Tom Robbins called tunnel vision.

Tunnel vision is caused by an optic fungus that multiplies when the brain is less energetic than the ego. It is complicated by exposure to politics. When a good idea is run through the filters and compressors of tunnel vision, it not only comes out reduced in scale and value, but in its new dogmatic configuration produces effects the opposite of those for which it originally was intended.[1]

Our future will not be secured in such tunnels.  It will perish in the darkness of overdone egos that play within the rules according to conventional wisdom.  Dark suits and conforming lapel pins do not define the fashion of innovation.  If we are to survive and prosper we must ignore their dictates, break the rules, and define new spheres of knowledge.  We must turn our backs on those who have forgotten how to dream—who have been compromised by convention—and forge a new world.  We must each summon our inner C&O.

[1] Tom Robbins, Still Life with Woodpecker (New York: Bantam Books, 1980), p. 117.
By |2017-05-25T19:00:27+00:00July 10th, 2010|General, Leadership|0 Comments

Looking for Leadership

At the center of our current crisis is not the recession, or terrorism, or an oil spill in the Gulf, as challenging as each of them are.  It is a dearth of leadership.  While our president struggles to find his voice it is unlikely, given the election cycle and a news cycle that assures his shoes will be covered with tar balls for months to come, that he will regain his mandate for hope and change.  And Congress has already proven its own hopelessness addled by anger, pettiness and rectitude.  It only leads in ineptitude.  That leaves only one other branch of government with both the authority and aptitude to lead: the United States Supreme Court, and the prospects there are fading too, suffering under the pall of partisan homogenization.

This week’s number is 160,000. That’s the number of pages of documents—mostly emails—the White House has released to reveal the essence of Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan’s mind.  The early analysis provided by the Washington Post[1] is that there is hardly anything controversial or alarming in either her past or her mind, leaving little for Congress to bicker about.  She is a benign product of an intellectually and liberally ambitious middle class family. She is highly educated and has most of the politically correct boxes ticked on her resume.  She’s hard not to like; assuming one could know her well enough to have an opinion.  I expect her childhood classmates are not particularly surprised she is where she is today, just after they answer the question Elena who?  Unless there is an undisclosed tawdry tale or militant link to Roe (and not Wade), Kagan is a shoe-in for confirmation on a Court populated exclusively by Ivy League alumni.  Therein lies the problem.

Once Kagan is sworn in, all of our justices will have been reared and educated in a corridor of thought defined by the same few but highly contentious issues that have been debated from the Back Bay of Boston to the boroughs of New York to the hunt clubs of the Potomac for generations.  As much as Kagan will likely disagree with Roberts, Alito, Thomas, Kennedy, and Scalia, and more often agree with Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor, the larger issue is one of human context, which is now as narrow as the differential of predictable 5 to 4 decisions.  While deliberations of the new court will likely have all the luster of the great marble walls of the Court, they will also lack the grit, blemishes, and fractures that make Americans both gloriously unique and at times, unseemly. They will be formed in an ivy-covered vacuum where every argument is as worn and frail as the texts that support them. Many will find comfort in this; many will argue courts should be so boring.  But maybe it’s time for the judiciary to lead.  It has before, as Justices like Earl Warren (Cal-Berkeley), Thurgood Marshall (Howard University), Warren Burger (William Mitchell College), and Sandra Day O’Conner (Stanford) led the nation from the bench by both deed and judgment.  In their day, the nation not only survived, it progressed.

This country needs leadership.  What we face today is a Court of no new ideas or inspirations; notwithstanding the occasional juvenile power impulse of the majority, as we saw in the Roberts/Alito judicial coup, which restored the corporate cash drawer to an electoral status it hasn’t enjoyed for more than 100 years. Kagan’s nomination may assure confirmation, but it falls well short of the spirit the Founders hoped to find in the our halls of justice where ‘We the People’ is best served by including the largest human context possible.  It’s time to shake the place up—to speak up and out about the future of the nation.  The only folks doing that today are far from qualified—unless selfish anger is a prerequisite for brilliance.  If we are to honor the motto on our Great Seal—E Pluribus Unum—out of many, one, we better preserve the many so as not to suffer the narrow context of the few, however inoffensive they appear in tens of thousands of pages of emails.  If we quash leadership at every opportunity the majestic marble halls of Washington DC will become the antiquities of tomorrow, auctioned off to the plutocrats of Wall Street as quaint memorabilia of a great society that died of systemic indifference.

[1] Julie Hirschfeld Davis, “Kagan Unscathed After Revelations From Past,” The Associated Press in The Washington Post, June 19, 2010.
By |2017-05-27T18:38:37+00:00June 21st, 2010|General, Leadership|0 Comments