Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Justapose This!

Flying cross-country from Albuquerque to Atlanta, I had all the time in the world to read today's New York Times.
Try it some time. I recommend it.
Not just scanning headlines or checking sports scores.
Read it carefully. Clip it. Look for things that jump out at you.
They can range from the sublime to the ridiculous.
Start with the ridiculous: Christine O'Donnell's first TV commercial is set to air in the hotly contested Senate race in Delaware.
And the first line of her first TV ad is . . . "I am not a witch."
That's right.
We've reached a new point--high point? low point? you be the judge--in American Senatorial politics. A major contender for a seat in "the world's greatest deliberative body," as the Senate likes to bill itself, is carrying her message to the voters. And that message is? "I am not a witch."
Richard Nixon famously said, "I am not a crook." He did not say, "I am not a wizard." In retrospect, a missed opportunity by Tricky Dicky.
And Ms. O'Donnell's closing message to the good people of Delaware?
"I'm you."
Well, that's not true, either. So the question is, can you trust a candidate who lies about "being you" to tell you the truth about "not being a witch"?
The voters will have to decide.
Meanwhile a truly important article on the front page, first column: The U.S. military command has ordered less dependence on fossil fuels--not for the whole country, just for the military.
This is a big story.
Here are a few quotes and para-phrases: "After a decade of waging wars in remote corners of the globe where fuel is not readily available, senior commanders have come to see overdependence on fossil fuel as a big liability, and renewable technologies--which have become more reliable and less expensive over the past few years--as providing a potential answer."
The data are compelling: according to one study, for every 24 fuel convoys that set out in Iraq and Afghanistan, one soldier or civilian engaged in moving the fuel was killed.
According to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, guarding fuel is keeping troops from doing what they're really sent to do, whether that is to fight the enemy or engage the population.
It's expensive in terms of money, lives, troop use, you name it.
But the reason this is huge news is that, while the civilian economy can try things, experiment, give change a shot, it's the Department of Defense that moves the needle.
Let's face it: that military-industrial complex that Ike warned us about? Well, it's here, now.
But it can work for us.
If the DOD jumps onto renewable energy as a military priority, you can bet that problems of cost, of scale and scope, of moving down the experience curve--all the things that bring industries to commercial success--will now be handled by the military. We'll have a lot of spin-off benefits to the civilian economy, as the military economy becomes the prime source of renewable energy solutions.
It is a de facto change in national energy policy--at long last.
What's the explanation?
Why this, why now?
Perhaps, just perhaps, it's the work of a white witch!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Change-Leadership Puzzle

How is a column like a train wreck?
I found myself asking that question after puzzling over Judith Warner's opening piece in this morning's New York Times Magazine.
In "The Way We Live Now," Ms. Warner finds herself wondering in print about the lessons to be learned from Michelle Rhee's tenure as school superintendent in Washington, DC. The defeat of Mayor Adrian Fenty at the polls has signaled the end of Ms. Rhee's contentious effort to deliver real change to the public schools of our Nation's Capitol, which, everyone agrees, are desperately in need of real change.
Except, according to Ms. Warner, you're not supposed to say that.
Americans are angry, upset, worried about the future, and dis-spirited about the present. They want leaders who can promise real change--you might call it the audacity of hope.
They just don't want leaders who indict them for the failures that they're so upset about. Or who make them feel bad. Or who seem to suggest that they should be leaders because they're smarter than they are. So apparently what Americans are hungry for are leaders who are as angry as they are--but not upset with them. They want leaders who can help them express their outrage--and feel like ordinary people as they do it.
Can you say "Tea Party"?
What Ms. Warner seems to be suggesting is that Americans don't like elitist leaders.
Fair enough.
But what her column doesn't come to terms with is what kind of leadership it takes to produce real, important change in a system that is failing.
That system could be a public school system, a city, a company, a country.
In fact, almost every where I go, I find two topics intertwined, like a DNA strand: Change and Leadership.
And in almost every case the same pattern emerges. We--the people involved, regardless of the entity or enterprise--know that what we're doing isn't working. Or if it is working, it can't and won't continue to work indefinitely.
Think of America's energy policy, think of urban sprawl, think of large, publicly traded companies that worry about their stock prices but don't make strategic decisions that can carry them into the future, think of the Washington, DC public school system, for that matter.
We know that what we're doing can't continue indefinitely--and yet we can't seem to bring about real, serious, systemic change.
Why not?
There are all kinds of theories. Some suggest that it goes back to the earliest humans and the evolution of the human brain--we don't have a brain that helps us imagine consequences out into the future. Lizard brains don't work that way. Some suggest it's all about MBA-trained financial calculations: what's the net present value of doing what you're doing versus taking the risk of change. Or human nature: Change is hard, the status quo is easy. The list goes on.
What most people ultimately suggest is that it takes some form of leadership to get the rest of us to agree that the status quo is unsustainable and change, hard and uncomfortable as it is, makes much more sense. (By the way, the same issue of the Times magazine has a long profile of Glen Beck that takes him back to his "moment of truth" as a drunk--the moment when his status quo was unsustainable and change was the only viable option, if he wanted to live, which suggests that the concept of "if" is an important, moment of truth proposition.)
So what kind of leader can make unwilling ordinary Americans recognize that we need to do the hard work of real change--and not just rant about it on TV or sell books calling for it in the abstract?
In companies, the model that gets praised the most is the tough-minded, non-egotistical, fact-facing leader who puts the good of the organization ahead of his/her own wealth and fame. (Jim Collins writes about this with clarity and insight in "Good to Great.")
Or it's the equally tough-minded leader who shows little concern for consensus building but holds the whole organization to high standards and adopts a my-way-or-the-highway attitude. (Successful coaches are often praised for this kind of laser-like focus; business leaders like Steve Jobs come to mind, as well.)
What about leaders in politics? Leaders of social change movements? Leaders who want to make serious and important change happen, who feel the urgency of the moment, but--God forbid!--recognize that they can't come off as elitists?
Ms. Warner is right: Nobody likes someone who keeps telling you how much smarter they are than you.
On the other hand, if we're going to solve most of these huge, complicated, swirling systems problems, we probably need some people who actually are smarter than the rest of us.
Say, Barack Obama, not George Bush.
So it is all about style, and not substance?
Is it about tone, not policy?
Or are we all going to have to take a deep breath and admit that we've gotten ourselves in a mess of our own making (see Glen Beck's moment of clarity!) and that now we do have to listen to leaders who have more experience, more insight, and more hands-on knowledge about how to fix things than we have?
After all, as Glen Beck knows, the first step in any 12-step program is to admit that we are powerless, and to turn our lives over to a Higher Power.
Couldn't Michelle Rhee be a higher power?
Next question: How is a blog posting like a train wreck?
Just wondering in print here.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Careful, You Sometimes Get What You Deserve

Earlier this week I went to a terrific gala put on by the Wild Earth Guardians, which, despite its name, is not a cross between Whole Foods and the Guardian Angels, but rather a dynamic and dedicated environmental outfit doing important work on behalf of the wild things (in which there is salvation, remember).
The guest speaker was Joel Sartore. If you haven't seen his work, pick up the current issue of National Geographic. His photos accompany a clear and powerful article on the reality of the oil spill in the Gulf. If you don't want to read the story (which is the clearest, best piece as I've read on this disaster), just look at Joel's pictures.
Then a couple of days later I got an email from Joel. He was commenting on the state of journalism today, saying that given the kind of reporting we were getting, we were likely to get the kind of government we didn't want.
Turns out he was reading my mind.
I've been thinking about the relationship between what you deserve and what you get, triggered by thoughts of union-management relations in the old days.
In business, the old saw was, companies get the unions they deserve.
The classic example was the old days in the auto industry, when Henry Ford hired spies to watch men on the assembly line. Laughing on the line was an offense that would get you fired. Trying to organize a union, well, who knows the punishment for that!
There were pitched battles, physical confrontations, between workers who wanted to organize and strike, and hired goons whose job was to beat them into submission.
Any wonder that, when there finally was a union in the auto industry, relations between management and labor were confrontational.
The companies got the unions they deserved.
Today, the media have decided that Americans don't read, won't read.
They've concluded that all we really want is a steady diet of Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, and celebrity rehab.
Advertisers have decided that print is dead. Journalism schools have concluded that old-school journalism is, well, old-school. Which is another way of saying, no longer relevant.
So don't be surprised, when the polls close on Election Day, if we've elected a crop of wing nuts and bozos to the highest offices of the land.
Of course, the truth is, there is still great journalism being done.
Less and less, but more than gets credited to the U.S. journalism account.
Wanna make a difference? Wanna take a stand? Wanna stand for something that can make a difference?
Go to your local news stand.
Buy $40 or $50 worth of serious journalism.
Pick up The New Republic, National Geographic, The Nation. If you haven't read Time or Newsweek in a while, give it a go, see what you learn! Pick up The New York Review of Books--it won't hurt you, I promise.
Sit down and actually read about what's going on in your country.
Look for articles that name names, that give credit where results are being forged, and reveal hypocrisy where it's being perpetrated.
When you find a magazine or publication you haven't read before, but you like, make a real stand: Subscribe!
Get serious about the future of America--before America's future turns into a joke.
Remember, we're likely to get the country we deserve. Based at least in part on the journalism we support.

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