Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Leadership: incompetent or willfully failing?

Carol Off, from CBC hosted a panel on "Leadership" as part of TVO's series, Big Ideas recently. Two of the participants expressed views about the current state of leadership in North America. John Ralston Saul commented that the elites are simply incompetent, whereas Naomi Klein expressed the view that the elites have failed us.
 Listening to the 'rationale' behind the culture at Enron as espoused by Jim Skilling, of accounting that enabled future sales to be included in current revenue, with no requirement to prove the reliability of such "estimates" one has to wonder what kind of "products" are emerging from the business schools like Harvard where the platinum plated grads are trained.
However, whether or not the elites have failed because they are incompetent or intentionally misleading, while nuanced, seems important. If they are incompetent, for example, because they argue that any issue is too complicated for fixing, as Saul indicates about homelessness, that's one thing. But if they are failing to address homelessness because they don't care, and wish to turn a blind eye to such desperation because they view such social tumours as indecent and beneath their concern, because the issue results more from a failure on the part of those living on the streets to take responsibility for themselves, that is quite different.
In North America, we are witnessing. and have been for nearly twenty years, a virtual cult of neo-conservative bullishness verging on the "survival of the fittest" as practiced at Enron, where teams of workers voted on their team members' performance grading them from 1-5, with the bottom 1's being dismissed each year. Profit for the corporation has become a mantra for business and for government, much of which seems to have been "bought" by the big business interests, through campaign financing.
That is not a benign accident of incompetence. It is a willful "neopotism" of the elites sleeping with the elites. Real finance reform could easily be passed, if the legislators were willing to accept "all levels of society" into the inner sanctum of government. However, the poor cannot even knock on the door, unless they secure the "backing" of the monied class. And given the choice between a poor person, regardless of education, background or competence and an educated and "successful" candidate, naturally the corporate suits will put their money on someone who is likely to 'win' the votes so that they can benefit from the legislation their economic sector needs to stay profitable.
Ingratiation is the cornerstone of leadership; if one wants to be successful politically, and provide leadership to a struggling society, one has to ingratiate oneself to "big" interests with money. And that, structurally, requires remedy. So long as that structure exists, we can conclude that both sides are willing to perpetuate the game.*
And that means that the political aspirants have given in to the rules as set by the rich, and that means that knowingly they have surrendered their power before they begin. And that has to be done consciously, with eyes fully open, as everyone can see. And that acceptance of inequality and inequity and power imbalance is a clear indication that "them that has gets and them that doesn't have loses" will continue to plague our "leadership". And that cannot be seen as mere incompetence, but as willful neglect.
So, while I have great respect for much of Saul's thinking and his many arguments about the 'three-legged stool' of Canadian society (including aboriginal peoples as the third leg), I believe that our elites are failing themselves, first by accepting the conditions of the leadership/political game, and second they are also failing the rest of us, because "our" view which may not concur with "the pursuit of profit" as the holy grail, or with "the survival of the fittest" as the inevitable outcome of the process of leadership and governance, is not represented at the tables of power in either the U.S. or Canada. And we will continue to suffer unless and until we change the rules. And only WE can change the rules because "they" find them quite comfortable.
* There is a federal government contribution to federal election expenses in Canada. However, in order to make the playing field completely level, all expenses need to come from the public purse both those to the candidates and to the national parties, monitored and sanctioned by the Auditor General, so that "ability to pay" (or ability to generate funds from big contributors) is not the criterion by which we judge our political candidates, but the value of their party's policy and their individual character.
In the U.S., candidates are expected to "fund-raise" every weekend throughout their terms, making them completely dependent on the "beneficience" (completely self-serving though it is) of their donors, even though the specific amount from each individual donor is capped. And in spite of this cap, both unions and corporations, and any other groups are "free to spend" as much as they like, given a very recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, based on "freedom of speech".

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