Alka Kothari

A formula for leadership

jointHurry up! It’s not working! He’s failed! He doesn’t deserve it! He’s negotiating with terrorists! He’s apologizing for America! He’s dissing Lamas for the Chinese!

These are just a sampling of the latest hysterical headlines about President Obama. But the exclamation points aren’t only coming from the right. The left is about to short-circuit from its outrage over the uncertainty of a public option. While listening to the pundit-parade, one fears an impending aneurism. Why is everyone so stressed out?

We may have elected President Change, but we didn’t prepare ourselves for the quiet contemplation, measured speech and diplomatic chess moves that define the Obama pace.

The right loves to hate Obama. The left loves to fear success. But both sides suffer from a collective American addiction to immediacy. More peace, more change, more war, more, more, now, faster! We may have elected President Change, but we didn’t prepare ourselves for the quiet contemplation, measured speech and diplomatic chess moves that define the Obama pace. With each pregnant pause he takes, he leaves time for fretting. And the Nobel committee did him no favors by hanging the sword of Damocles, a sharp blade they call the Peace Prize, over him for the remainder of his term, or natural born life, until he brokers Middle East peace or ends world hunger.

So how do we kick the habit? First, everyone calm down. Then, do the math. Leadership is more than the sum of its parts. The equation for leadership isn’t a simple addition of actions completed or bills signed into law. It is a complex set of formulas, requiring as much subtracting of troops from Iraq, multiplying health care options, and dividing Wall Street bosses from their bonuses as it does the adding of jobs. When all the doing and undoing is done, the sum total of his leadership should be judged by how accurately and elegantly he solves the equation. Until then, let the man sit with his numbers a while.

If the hysterics persist, Obama should prescribe medical marijuana by executive order. Word on the street says Secretary Holder won’t be prosecuting.

Take Your Boss Hostage and Feed Him Mussels?

March 25, 2009

moulesfritesIn a world brimming with gloom and economic doom, it’s refreshing to find an unexpected laugh.  Mine came in the form of mussels and French fries.  No, not my evening meal, but rather the dinner served to Luc Rousselet, director of 3M’s operations in France. Not laughing yet? Sorry, I failed to mention that his dinner had to be delivered, since his employees are presently still holding him hostage in his office at a 3M plant in Pithiviers, France.

Hostage, boss, anger, mussels – which one of those words doesn’t fit? Your mind, if it’s an American-trained one, is probably busy with all sorts of Taxi Driver meets Bill Gates style images. Where is the SWAT team?  Are the employees armed or mentally unstable? Is there a You Tube video about to be released?

French workers have often inspired a secret envy in the rest of the world because of their fearlessness in the face of their governments.

Apparently nothing nearly so dramatic. On Tuesday evening, Mr. Rousselet gave word to the Associated Press that he was fine, all was calm, and that the employees were taking shifts guarding the door to his office. Oh, and passing him a take out menu.

Which begs the question, have the 3M employees fried their French brains as well?  How do they do it?  Sure, they have a blasé air when philandering and taking paramours that makes Puritanical, but no less adulterous, Americans blush. But taking your boss hostage as leverage? That’s a bolder move than even Pepe le Pew would dare.  The employees have made it clear that they are ‘detaining’ Mr. Rousselet to use as a human bargaining chip in their negotiations regarding severance packages. Over 100 of them are being laid off.

Maybe they are hoping for some sort of northern European result.  A Stockholm-syndrome that results in the managers of French companies willingly donating their bonuses to charity and falling in love with their employee captors. Even so, shouldn’t there be a sniper or two trying to get Mr. Rousselet out of the building?

Not so in France. French workers have often inspired a secret envy in the rest of the world because of their fearlessness in the face of their government. Their revolution was blood and guts and guillotines. Their national anthem sings of gathering in battalions and “marching so that impure blood can water the furrows of their fields.”  Yesterday’s interpretation of the anthem involved marching up the Champs-Elysee to the presidential palace and burning tires, announcing with an offending fragrance that President Sarkozy has been put on notice. He must tread very carefully over these wheels on fire if he is to avoid widespread violence. Republicans take note; this is what real socialism looks like.

So Mr. Rousselet stays in captivity another day. While he enjoys his mussels and pommes frites, in the lunchroom I imagine his captors are eating their cake.

(Update – Mr. Rousselet was released the following morning.)


Where is the Honor Amongst Thieves?

gold-chestMorality plays are, well, moralizing, and therefore a bit tedious. Words like truth, honor and respect feel heavy, as if they should be capitalized and written as German nouns.  Nonetheless, this week’s AIG employee bonus scandal could use more than a pinch of moralizing tedium.

Ostensibly, the issue involves contracts.  AIG promised $165 million in employee bonuses in 2008 and claims to be legally responsible for paying them, however distasteful. Many argue that breaching contracts is not part of our legal code and that one breach would compromise the government’s future credibility and negotiating power with other failing banks and companies. We are a nation of contracts and we honor our commitments.  Others argue that there is more honor in the breach. Indeed President Obama said Monday that he told Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to “pursue every single legal avenue” to block the bonuses.  He continued, “I think Mr. Liddy and certainly everybody involved needs to understand this is not just a matter of dollars and cents.  It’s about our fundamental values.”

It’s time to start naming names and shaming the shameless.

With those words, The White House, Treasury Department and Congress have begun a full-frontal assault on AIG, complete with lawyers and tricky tax codes and populist politicians leading the charge.  They all have the wrong end of the proverbial stick.  Contracts, whether honored or breached, are not the fundamental point.  Our fundamental values revolve around this tricky word honor and it’s antonym, shame. Pursuing legal avenues leads us away from our values and into our darker natures – lawyers declaring war on reasonableness, parsing words until the underlying concepts are left naked and penniless.

AIG and the US government should not be worrying about honoring anything or anyone.  Who’s honor is at stake here?  Every employee who accepted a bonus.  At the moment, they are hiding behind a nameless veil, protected from public inquiry and obligation.  New York’s Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has it right.  It’s time to start naming names and shaming the shameless. Forget the Treasury or IRS. We need diplomacy à la the State Department, and CIA maneuvering to use as leverage. Give us Valerie Plame-style outings if these greedy cowards won’t give back the money themselves.  If honor won’t work, then shame is the only tool left to humanize.  Those who won’t privately do what is morally right must lose their wealth and reputation publicly.

Honor and shame are bedmates. If one can’t feel shame, how can one be honorable?

Imagine such a scene in Japan. Japanese employees would not be waiting for their bosses and the Treasury Department to sort out the legal mess. We would know their names already because they would have jumped out of their skyscraper offices by now from the shame. And there’s the rub – virtue only exists in a world of vice. Honor and shame are bedmates.  If one can’t feel shame, how can one be honorable?

These are the fundamental values that President Obama on down should be screaming about and trying to help restore.  Leave capitalism and contracts alone.  To the AIG receivers of bonuses the president should say – Stop hiding like truant toddlers behind your employers’ skirts. Be men and women of honor. The boom and bust point of the entire capitalist system is that you are allowed unlimited personal wealth.  You wanted personal fortune at the expense of your nation’s wealth and security. Fine.  If your wealth is personal, than so is your responsibility.  Unlimited wealth also means unlimited loss. Give back the money or show your faces.

Let us restore honor, even amongst thieves.

Country First

declaration-of-independenceMy recent book club gathering, moving along at its usual witty pace, turned suddenly combative after the telling of a simple tale.  As it happened, that evening all the white American and white European members of the club were absent, leaving a medley of Indians, Nigerians, and other African nationalities.  I was the only US citizen   present.   We had a mix of new and veteran members.  One of the veterans was recounting the story of a previous author and guest of the book club.  The author had written about his struggle to find a kidney donor after his first transplant failed.  In desperate need, he turned to his colleagues for help and received it.  A fellow journalist was a match and she volunteered to donate her kidney to save his life.  The added twist – he is black, she is white.

Instantly the room burst into furious incredulity – Well obviously someone has the facts wrong.  It can’t be!  Was she paid handsomely?  Was there corruption or persuasion that we didn’t know about?  An illicit affair, surely?  A hidden love child?  This would never happen in Nigeria/India/Insert Country of Choice!

We who had met both journalists insisted that nothing nefarious was afoot.  No, she volunteered, of her own free will, without compensation.  And they definitely were not having an affair.  We’d never seen two people with less chemistry. The idea of an affair between them was actually uncomfortable even to imagine.  The group grew louder still, until I realized that I had the answer that would silence the mob.

If not sexual or familial love, what kind of love leads a white woman to risk her life to save a black man?

“White People!” I shouted.  Silence.  Pause.  Eureka!   Of course only a white, American woman would have the absurd idea of undergoing major surgery for a colleague, no matter the sincere claim to lasting friendship.  Oh the land of charity and oneness, and the land of naivety and schmaltz, some surely thought.  But schmaltz alone does not compel someone to go through weeks of tests, waiting, surgery, and painful, slow recovery.  There was something more to this white American kindness.  If not sexual or familial love, what kind of love leads a white woman to risk her life to save a black man?  I think it is love of country.

Country First – this is not a nod to any political persuasion, though John McCain did use the phrase as a campaign slogan.  Country First speaks directly to the gracious sacrificing of a woman’s kidney, and to it’s darker opposite.  Country First is also the reason for war and state-sanctioned aggression.  But Country First is intertwined with the failed state of the American family.

Family Second – The American family, such as it is, is a thing of shock and awe for most immigrants, especially those arriving from poorer, warmer, non-Western corners of the Earth.  The repetitive chorus of dastardly deeds recounted at immigrant dinner tables begins with,  “Today a lady passed away and in her will she left everything to her dog!  This after a lifetime of cleaning up the dog’s poop.  And nothing was left to her three children!  Bloody Americans.  What kind of country is this?”

The American soul is solitary, not continually burdened by the heavy weight of family loyalty and duty to one’s kin.

Stories involving love of dog over child are commonplace, and then peppered with statistics about divorce rates, teen pregnancy and drug usage, kicking children out at 18, then later asking them to pay rent to live at home, and the alarming acceptance of nursing homes as a place to dump off elders to die isolated deaths under the unforgiving din of fluorescent lighting.

While much of the above is said with an excess of hyperbolic fury, there are crunchy granules of truth amidst the exaggeration.  American independence has cost her families dearly.  Raised in a sprawling Indian clan, I can never wrap my mind around the quiet of most homes and the need to call ahead before visiting.  Nursing homes are not a place to die with dignity.  The ability to turn one’s back on those who gave life and one’s progeny is definitely a sign of Family Second.  The American soul is solitary, not continually burdened by the heavy weight of family loyalty and duty to one’s kin.  Of course the US is filled with loving parents, grateful children, cared-for elders and daily sacrifice in order to honor the bonds of family life.  The evidence of it’s existence is not in question, but rather how such bonds fare in the hierarchy of American ideals.  And here is where Country wins.

America is an idea.  Furthermore, her citizens are bonded by ideas, not as a race or people.  Everything about this country centers around the desire to participate in the noblest of experiments – declaring the dangerously independent truth that all men are created equal.  From this truth, all the other experiments are funded.  Such an idea, even while inked by the blood of slaves, expands the possibility for brotherhood to each and every citizen.  But the idea of equality also begins to dismember the insular ties of clan membership.  When all men are equal, and are allowed equal share in the pursuit of life, liberty, happiness (and property), the need for a family unit is diminished.

In most of the world, family is a unit of such sacred composition that civic duty fails to inspire the love that burns bright in American hearts.

If we think upon other nations, whether India or Italy or any in between, such abstract bonds superseding family and religious loyalty are truly unimaginable.  Italy has had over 50 governments since WW II, most lasting less than one year.  India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her own Sikh security guards because she violated the sanctity of their holiest shrine – The Golden Temple of Amritsar.  And yet these two countries have family ties that function so strongly that they are similar to governments.  Elders are cared for through a joint family system as a form of social security and pension planning.  If a doctor is in the family, her living room is the free clinic for an entire block.  Children are raised by La Mamma, yes, but also by la nonna, and anyone else in the village who feels like having a say that day.  Indian neighbors routinely yell at and slap and feed all children around them.  Some of this behavior would land them in jail in America.

Ideas are guiding forces, even when not called up to serve as the thought of the moment.

In most of the world, family is a unit of such sacred composition that civic duty fails to inspire the love that burns bright in American hearts. Country First would be an insult, partly because leaders around the world inspire little desire for emulation.  But also because, long before the Westphalian system of nation-states, people gathered around to protect and govern their own, not in service to an idea, but to blood.  Yes, much of the world is now committed to constitutions and treaties and charters and currencies, but blood is still thicker than the ink used to write all those legal documents.

And blood brings us back to our kidney donor.  I have no doubt that she was surrounded by her family moments before the surgery and I seriously doubt she was reciting the Declaration of Independence during those moments to explain her decision.  But ideas are guiding forces, even when not called up to serve as the thought of the moment.  Whatever the other reasons she surely had, whether religious devotion, lifelong friendship, or even a pinch of unconscious white guilt over race, she decisively put Country First that day.

godfather-part-2

Before we sing our final anthem to blood and ideas, let’s turn to a scene that sheds light on what I’ve left opaque.  The final minutes of The Godfather II.   It’s the bombing of Pearl Harbor, 1941, and Don Corleone’s birthday.  The eldest brother Sonny declares that the 30,000 men who enlisted that day are saps, ‘because they risk their lives for strangers.’   Michael Corleone counters, ‘That’s Pop talking… They risk their lives for their country.’  In that moment he says it all – strangers have become one.  They have become Country and worth the shedding of blood, even against the wishes of one’s own blood.  He then drops one last bomb on the family by quitting college and enlisting in the Marines.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1lyNHcdbau8

This too is the idea that drives America.  For without risk, can there truly be love of country?   And without risk, can there be a Godfather and a family that he loves and protects?  I leave you all with two sides to one question:

Is there greater nobility in donating a kidney to a friend or stranger than a family member?  Or is the nobility dependent on an idea outside of the sacrifice itself?

In the three part Godfather series, Michael Corleone sheds blood in the name of his father and his country.  Is there nobility in either act, or neither, or just one?

However you respond, I hope that we can all agree that love without risk is not love at all.

Booing Bush

barack_obama_inaugurationAt 11:35 am on inauguration day, January 20, 2009, a few friends and I held forth in sincere deliberation about a topic of urgent moral and political significance – whether or not to boo still President Bush as he was announced on the steps of the Capitol before President-elect Obama’s swearing in.  Of all the joyous or mundane topics we could have been discussing, this one was taken with seriousness of purpose.  We did not want to mess up our last, and in ways only, chance to express ourselves to our departing leader.  Our arguments for and against were various:

Justice – I don’t need to boo him.  Impeachment is now too late, but he must be tried for war crimes!

Resignation – It’s over and he’s finally leaving!  He won’t hear us or care anyway.  Let it go.

Nobility – It’s not in the spirit of Obama and this crowd to engage in such petty behavior.  Everyone around us is calm and generous.  Why should we boo and betray these nobler feelings?

Pity – Such public rejection seems cruel.  I feel badly for him.  He has been Cheney’s puppet for eight years.

Responsibility – But the entire planet is watching.  Think of the billions who should know that we reject him.  It’s our civic duty.

Validation – At this last moment, I want him to finally hear us.  He has never taken us seriously, and we will be heard.

And so, a few minutes later, with a sense of civic duty and a deep need for validation, we booed the hell out of George W. Bush.  As it turned out, so did almost two million others stretching back from the National Mall to the Lincoln Memorial.  As the waves of rejection echoed, a familiar sports anthem superceded the booing – “Na na na na, na na na na, hey, hey, hey, goodbye!”  We tried that out for a while too.

His final image on the steps of the Capitol invoked palpable pity for a man who appeared lost and without a country.  Though I booed in chorus, I was left feeling lonely and dissatisfied in my protest.  It didn’t help because he doesn’t want to hear and quite possibly simply lacks the needed human skills.  Booing is a dull tool, not even a tool.  Not even worth it, but necessary.  Why were we giving in to groupthink and the dehumanizing anger of crowds?  Because amidst all the joy, hope, change, and purpose, the nation is slowly realizing that there will be a sever case of post-traumatic stress disorder to deal with now that we have freed ourselves of him.

George W. Bush is on the wrong side of history, and our dissent will not be silenced.   He did not build trust but destroyed it, and of his many crimes, the worst is surely this: He took our money and spent it to kill the wrong people in our name.

So how do a people abused heal when the perpetrators of the crimes fly away unscathed, unprosecuted and unwilling to see how badly we have been beaten down?  President Obama began the healing with bold words, clearly contrasting with his predecessor and restoring, at least in speech, the values we hold most dear.

“As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.”

False dichotomies buried and ideals restored despite the expediency of compromise.  This is a good start.  But the following is even better.

“To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West – know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

Most commentators point to Iran, the Middle East and North Korea as the objects of those words, but in them I hear a domestic call.  George W. Bush is on the wrong side of history, and our dissent will not be silenced.   He did not build trust but destroyed it, and of his many crimes, the worst is surely this: He took our money and spent it to kill the wrong people in our name.

Our validation will come not from silly pranks or vengeful bloodletting, but by being given a forum where we can speak as equals and regain our power as citizens.

But charging him and his administration with war crimes, while satisfying our thirst for revenge, will not heal our wounds, but rather keep them open, sore, and susceptible to infection.  The Hague is not the model we need, but rather a sunnier clime.  A Truth and Reconciliation Commission is the real balm and the best way to quiet our powerless booing.  Make Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld and Rove and Rice sit for hours and days and weeks and hear us tell our tales.  Our validation will come not from silly pranks or vengeful bloodletting, but by being given a forum where we can speak as equals and regain our power as citizens.  Mr. Bush, we will put away our childish things.  We will extend our hand to you, if you will only unclench your fist.

Greek Style

Illinois GovernorWhen former New York governor Eliot Spitzer stood with his wife and announced that he was resigning because of his penchant for $5,000/hour prostitutes, he peppered his speech with the all-too familiar words of the fallen American politician in retreat, using words like remorse, atone, deeply sorry, failings, faith, trust, and sincerely apologize.  Not so the words of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich this Friday after being impeached by the Illinois House, and for that, you gotta love him.  Governor Blagojevich has provided a much needed, and rather entertaining, contrast to the typical Christian response to political scandal.

“I am a sinner.  I admit my sins.  I’ll give you all the sordid details for $24.95.  Please forgive me and help pay for my legal expenses.”

Eliot Spitzer and numerous other sloppy politicians of late have defaulted to the tried and true model of sinner seeking absolution through public repentance.  These scenes are made even more painful to watch when the wife of said sex-scandalized politician stands by his side, looking remarkably stable for someone who is surely overdosing on tranquilizers.   On the one hand, you can’t blame them for trying.  The prevailing American culture of tell-all confession guarantees a book deal and an appearance on Oprah if one follows the Christian path.  “I am a sinner.  I admit my sins.  I’ll give you all the sordid details for $24.95.  Please forgive me and help pay for my legal expenses.”  On the other hand, the saccharine hypocrisy of the exit speech and subsequent talk show appearances have grown tiresome.  Christian values being paraded after you’ve been caught abusing power or literally with your pants down seem transparent and mocking of the truly pious.

Blagojevich has instead chosen a decidedly Greek tone, filled with the hubris of a protagonist in a Greek tragedy.  He hasn’t taken a single question from the press in the month since the FBI arrested him for admitting on tape, “the Senate seat is a  $#&@*!*# valuable thing, you just don’t give it away for nothing.”   Regarding President-elect Obama’s preference for senator, Blagojevich refused because, “…they’re not willing to give me anything except appreciation.   #!@* them!”  Nice.   But he has delivered two combative statements, insisting that he has done nothing that amounts to a criminal offense, ending by quoting poets Kipling and Tennyson.  The amount of bravado he has mustered is reminiscent of Al Pacino in Scarface.  Being taken out in a mob hit seems more fitting for this character than impeachment in a stuffy state house with a bunch of questionable minor politicians passing judgement in the hopes that they will not also be discovered.

Despite invoking a different era and ethical mood, the litany of moralizing adjectives being used to reduce him have been overwhelming.  Politicians great and small keep trying to take him down by shaming him, but this is not a man who will be shamed.  He will not be judged in the Christian way, and there in lies the lesson.  For what he has tried to point out is that his supposed moral failings are not unique or all that extreme.  Using power for the pursuit of blatant self-interest and advancement is a long-standing tradition and one that even garners a certain kind of respect in political circles.  The senate seat is a valuable thing, and politicians around the country know it.  So what can we learn from what Illinois Representative Jack D. Franks called the “freak show that has become Illinois government”?

From the President down to the state houses, we have elected politicians who have been unable to temper their alarming self-aggrandizement with even basic knowledge of policy or attempts to advance the public good.

Simply this – Americans have been demanding too much of the wrong kind of qualities from their leaders.  They want, and politicians pretend to possess, a moral compass that rarely exists in people with as much power as governors and senators and presidents are entrusted.  But what has not been demanded on either side of the political isle is what is so glaringly absent today – competence.  The basic proficiency required to govern, lead, and inspire.   ‘Rod the Clod’, as he is affectionately called in Chicago circles, is painfully stupid.  He is actually unable to maneuver a deal for himself without cursing like a sailor or being caught on tape after knowing for years that he is under investigation.  It’s the incompetent running around in snowy circles outside his Chicago home that should most deeply offend.  What does Rod the Clod possess?  Hair.

From the President down to the state houses, we have elected politicians who have been unable to temper their alarming self-aggrandizement with even basic knowledge of policy or attempts to advance the public good.  President-elect Obama appears to break the Illinois mold both in intelligence and moral compass.  But if he were to fail us over the next four years, let it be in giving in to the power of his office, rather than leading us yet again into the abyss because of his or his cabinet’s failure to do the difficult, thoughtful work of freeing us from the tragedy of incompetence.

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