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November 1, 2008

WINNERS, LOSERS AND LEADERS

“The two real political parties in America are the Winners and the Losers.”
—Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

“I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”
—Thomas Jefferson

Leadership can be an elusive quality, especially within the curiously ineffective political subculture that has come to dominate Washington, D.C. Politicians seem driven by ambition and a lust for power. But these days, once they have that power, most politicians have no idea how to use it to serve our national interests. They understand “leadership” in terms of specific and progressively more important jobs to hold. They don’t understand it as a privilege, a responsibility or an opportunity to do much more than reward their friends and punish their enemies.

Those of us who have grown up in the world of business understand leadership much differently. We see it as conferring on each of us an obligation, consistent with the law, to act in the best interests of our organizations, our business associates and our employees. We understand the absolute requirement to accept responsibility for our actions. We know that we must develop a deep bench of talented executives who will earn leadership positions through their demonstrated skills, experience and deep understanding of the business. The requirement for continuous improvement and sustainable growth drives all of us.

Ask yourself when was the last time that your representative in Congress demonstrated leadership of that kind. Indeed, when did we last see Congress as a whole take on a difficult and complex national issue and, in a bipartisan way, resolve that issue in the national interest?

I can count on one hand the legislation that has emerged from Congress in the past two decades that approaches that definition. And, no surprise, the latest academic research on the issue of Congressional productivity— a collaborative study by political scientists from the University of Tennessee and Southern Illinois University—finds that productivity has continuously declined since the 1960s, trending toward record low productivity in the past two Congresses. Are you in any way surprised to learn this?

Consider for a moment the $700 billion financial rescue package, legislation essential to the well-being of our economy and, indeed, the global economy. It didn’t pass on the first vote as a simple, clear, three-page bill. Reasonable questions were raised about it, yes, but in the end, what turned the tide in its favor were all the goodies stuffed into the legislation—an orgy of pork and special interests—to make it too good to fail. That’s Washington’s idea these days of “leadership.”

In business life, a leader whose policies lead to significant losses is usually fired. In Washington, in a situation that defies all logic, politicians whose votes made the Wall Street meltdown possible, even likely, presided over the shape of the bailout package and related goodie bags.

Of course, there are well documented instances of leadership failures and extreme self-dealing in business. We are living through some of those failures today. But our public leadership, with very few exceptions, now deals more in bickering and recriminations than passing meaningful legislation. Congress seems to be incapable of setting aside partisan and special interests to act in the best interests of the nation, even in moments of extreme crisis. It should be a source of concern for all of us.

Like Jefferson, at times like these I fear for my country. We have our Winners and our Losers, and somewhere out there, I’m still idealistic enough to hope that we also have Leaders. Very few of them are in Washington.