Saturday, October 11, 2008

Leadership in a Crisis

In a crisis, what we WANT from people who are running the show is just two things. Be present and feel our pain. George W. Bush is not particularly good at either, but he has been better at it in the economic current crisis than he was after Katrina or 9/11. Rudy Giuliani is the master. Nothing he likes better than to be present and to feel our pain and 9/11 gave him a chance to salvage his reputation by playing to his strengths. He pandered to us in every way, telling us to go back and have fun and the government would go catch the bad guys without any sacrifices at home. Giuliani accumulated enormous political capital during the period right after 9/11, but instead of spending a little of it to stimulate a conversation in this country about what we had to do differently because the world had changed, he tried to spend it by quashing an investigation of why New York City was not better prepared, by extending his term as Mayor beyond that statutory limits, and by writing a book called....Leadership. Ugh. But what we WANT from a Big Foot in a crisis is different than what we NEED. Leadership is about delivering to people what they need, not what they want. It is about challenging your own constituency. A crisis is an opportunity for leadership, for taking steps that are needed but would not be tolerated without the anxiety and fear that the crisis stimulates. So it was good to see the colorless Gordon Brown, who no one would want to have a beer with, recognized that a crisis was an opportunity and led the world in taking steps that were beyond the imagination of our White House. In announcing his bank plan and his idea of convening the world's financial chiefs Brown said that "This is not a time for conventional thinking or outdated dogma but for fresh and innovative intervention that gets to the heart of the problem" and called for "global action". The reality, of course, is that he doesn't know what will work any better than Paulson and Bernacke and my financial advisor do. Brown's just guessing, trying an experiment. But at least he has been willing to try something that was way outside the standard repertoire. And the idea that the folks who let us collude with them to get into this mess can be relied on to get us out of it is foolish. But we were foolish before, when we took out the mortgages we could not afford, ran up credit card debt we could not pay off, and, in my case, kept much too much of our nest egg in equities. So we have little choice but to be foolish again, and keep our fingers crossed that one of their guesses will staunch the hemmoraging.

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