Thursday, September 24, 2009

Washington, DC

Even though I worked here at DOT in the last two years of the Carter Administration, I'd forgotten how humid Washington, DC is--it's like working and living in a cloud (in more ways than one). But it is a city that stimulates thinking; it's hard to be here without reflecting on the state of the nation and what it means to be an American.
Last night I had dinner with my old friend and mentor, Larry Smith (he's the man behind "knowin' it ain't the same as doing' it). We talked about a speech he'll be giving to a group of foreign journalists in a week or so. Larry is expert at explaining the American political system, so I'm sure he'll do a fantastic job of bringing context to the current scene.
But our conversation turned to other matters: Larry has always insisted that the American character is uniquely pragmatic. But the current temper seems less pragmatic and more bent on rage and irrational anger--the dark side of the American character. Larry said that we've always had this division in our "national soul"--a battle between our instinct to do the right thing, to make good things happen, versus a seething undercurrent that manifests itself in demagogues and destroyers. Harry Truman famously once observed that it takes a skilled carpenter to build a house, but any jackass can knock one down.
Larry told the story of one US Senator who has always been able to work across the aisle, even though he's a principled conservative Republican. When he went back to his state over the summer, he was confronted with angry crowds who threatened to unseat him if he worked with the Democrats to pass any health care bill. He's now officially against health care reform.
My comment: He's a double-loser. He's not only not standing up against the tide of irrational hate and anger, he's also caving in as a leader and not doing his job as a Senator. The excuse,"If I vote for this it will cost me my job" is not a defense for doing the wrong thing.
It reminded me of a conversation I had with Jim Collins about CEOs who cave in to pressure to amp up the company's stock price, even though they know it's not the right thing to do. They do it because, like the Senator, they're afraid they'll lose their jobs. But keeping the job by doing the wrong thing isn't the point of the exercise! It's not an admissible defense! Why did you do the wrong thing? "Because otherwise they'd fire me." Sorry! Not admissible!
If you look closely at the issues on the front page of the paper--from the economic melt down to health care reform to what to do in Afghanistan--they are all in one way or another moral issues.
What does it mean to be an American today?
It means having the courage of our convictions--but first it means having convictions.
Too many politicians, too many business leaders lack not only courage, but also moral convictions. Without moral convictions, it's impossible to make sound business decisions. And when you make unsound business decisions, you forfeit the right to be a leader, and, ultimately, you help drive the company and the economy into the ditch.
Fundamentally that's the story behind this global financial crisis.
And it's why we need to look hard at fixing the systems, including executive compensation, that fueled bad decisions and rewarded people who lacked moral courage.

All Rights Reserved 2009 (c) Alan Webber, Rules Of Thumb