Thursday, January 03, 2008

2008, Part III: Where There Is No Vision, the People Perish

-- by Sara

The job of articulating visions, uniting people behind them, and creating the climate of trust that enables people to greet change belongs to people called leaders. (You may remember them. America used to produce good leaders the way it produced good food, good jobs, and most of the other good things the world needed, but it's been a while.) Since the great task of this coming year is to choose ourselves a leader who's going to take on the heroic effort of seeing us through this mess, it may be useful to contemplate the qualities that this moment in history demands.

The big thing to bear in mind here is that that leadership is not the same thing as management.

Leaders are change agents who know how to create and build new systems. They're able to select the most preferable future from the wide range of options; draw vivid and detailed pictures of what that future looks like, show us all what must be done to get there, and motivate us to willingly put our resources into the effort. They've got a keen sense of what pieces of the past can be left behind, and what must be brought forward to build on. They are, necessarily, as honest as they can possibly be: it's impossible for nations to navigate great changes without implicit trust between the leaders and the led. They embody the culture's core purposes and values, and depend heavily on those values to guide their decisions. They're not afraid of making hard choices, saying "no" to powerful people, putting the common good over anyone's personal interests, and using every lever of power at their disposal to get people on board with the program. When the leader's work is done, chaos navigated, goal achieved -- that's when the managers take over.

Managers are skilled at sustaining existing systems and keeping them operating for the long haul. They're not about change; they're about maintaining the status quo. They don't stir shit, they don't take risks, and if they have big thoughts, they keep them to themselves. All that risk and vision stuff just gets in the way of their real job, which is to nurture what they're given, optimize it for better performance, and make the necessary compromises that allow the enterprise to keep functioning day to day. During those long eras when things are stable over time, when changes are small and gradual and trends are predictable, managers who can respect what's been built and keep it working productively are exactly what you need.

One of the ways you know that that era of stability is ending and a transformative shift is at hand is that everything that used to work gradually stops working. Even the best managers simply can't smooth over the grinding gears any more. Systems that once worked flawlessly now behave unpredictably. Odd things happen that nobody could have imagined -- and the managers, as the ones nominally in charge of smooth operations, almost always end up getting the blame.

When things begin to seriously break down, the managers, in over their heads at last, typically go into hard denial. People are holding them responsible for everything that's going wrong, even though the problems are due to large-scale (often externally-imposed) issues that are outside their line of authority and well beyond their control. Since they can't fix it, their only defense is to deny flat out that it's broken at all -- a farce they'll keep up long past the point where they become completely ridiculous, and lose all credibility with reasonable people. The phrase "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic" was coined for this exact moment.

The problem we've had with our politicians in the past few years -- both Republican and Democrat -- is that they're managers in denial about the fact that the system they're ruling over is in total breakdown, and hurtling toward a fundamental reorganization. Take Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton, both of whom are running as seasoned, experienced corporate candidates who are savvy managers of the status quo. The fact that they're offering their management skills as a selling point tells you everything you need to know about just how out of touch they are with this particular historical moment. They haven't even admitted to themselves, let alone us, that the American life we've known for the past 60 years is collapsing underneath our feet: instead, they're still blithely making happy promises to take us back to the glory days of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, respectively.

Those promises, far from being reassuring, should terrify us. These candidates apparently haven't noticed yet that the world they want to take us back to doesn't even exist any more. They're still in denial, offering the benign security that comes with doing things they way they've always been done. (Pay no attention to those four horses. They're just there to tow our carriages back across that bridge to the past.)

And Mitt and Hillary, of course, aren't the only ones. There's no shortage of people still in denial about the magnitude of the changes we face -- and it's unnerving that most of them seem to be the people now in power. But one of the universal truths about these moments in history is that the center usually fails to hold because the managers in charge of sustaining it simply don't have what it takes to lead us through a transformation.

And so it's time for us to thank our nation's managers for their service, give them a gold watch, and escort them from public stage. What we need to be electing for this moment are leaders -- people with strong imaginations tied to an even stronger moral core, who know how to speak to our values, highlight our strengths, and move us through treacherous times. America has been beyond fortunate in the past that our best leaders have usually emerged and risen to the occasion at just these moments, when we needed them most.

When we think of the greatest presidents, we name the ones who were able to provide resolute strength and soaring vision through our years of deepest change. (Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Hoover are remembered as two of the presidency's most tragic failures, in large part because both were highly skilled managers doomed to preside in a moment that required decisive leaders.) Last time things came apart this badly, FDR saw us through; the time before that, it was Lincoln. These days, a lot of people are wondering out loud where our "next FDR" is. We know intuitively that we're not going to find our way back to the center without someone like that to show the way.

But there's a lot of uncertainty in our choosing process, too. When things come apart, everything comes apart -- and that includes the systems and structures through which we develop and choose our leaders. As the chaos rises, odd things happen that could never happen in more stable times. And that's what we'll be looking at tomorrow.

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