Our fixation on leadership is as strong as ever.
- The private sector: In the latest such deal, the Bank of America (BOA) and the Justice Department agreed to a nearly $17 billion settlement relating to charges that the bank had duped investors into buying toxic mortgage securities. The deal does not do what outraged critics wanted it to do: it does not punish individuals for wrongdoing. Leaders in other words, those who led and managed the banks in question, have generally been getting off Scott-free. (An exception to this rule may be Angelo Mozilo, former CEO of Countrywide Financial, which was acquired by BOA.) I do not denigrate this position: punishing institutions is hardly the same as punishing individuals. This is not, however, to say that no blame is being allocated. The BOA deal is the largest government settlement by any company in American history. So, much as some of us would like to see some previously in charge behind bars, to say that everyone is being held blameless is plain wrong.
- The public sector: Of all the observations that one might make about the recent events in Ferguson, MO, for a student of leadership none was as striking as the stunning lack of it. It was, if you will, a field day for followers, for leaders were nowhere in evidence. In short order, some of the old guard, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton among them, parachuted in to town – to little or no obvious effect. Government officials in turn, local, county, and state, including the governor and the mayor, all sent conflicting signals, with no single political leader emerging to take charge. Nor did either the white community or the black one have in place a person or persons who clearly was a spokesperson. If anyone at all was, is, leader-like in style and substance, it was Captain Ronald Johnson, the black Missouri State Highway Patrol official who finally was designated responsible for security. Unlike nearly everyone else, Johnson was able to calm tensions, and he was equally able to engage blacks and whites in civilized discourse. But Johnson’s success in his unaccustomed role was a reflection not only of his leadership skills, but of the paucity of same among those from whom it legitimately was presumed.
- At home: Headline on the front page of the New York Times: “As World Boils, Fingers Point Obama’s Way” (8/16/14). ISIS is turning out what even administration officials now concede is a threat “beyond any we have seen.” The question that only history will decide is whether President Barack Obama has been in any way, to any degree responsible for the situation in which the United States of America, and for that matter the rest of the Western world, now finds itself. We are a declared target of a terrorist group that has morphed into something akin to a country. Our tendency, not surprisingly, is as it has always been: to blame the person in charge for what happened. Whether this is fair or not is almost beside the point. The point is that ISIS materialized on Obama’s watch and that, rightly or wrongly, it is he who will be held to account for how this turns out.
- Abroad: What’s perhaps most remarkable about ISIS is that until recently it was unknown and unheard of. Until this summer nearly no American even knew the name ISIS, because even to those in the know it seemed not much more than yet another group of Middle Eastern terrorists, similar to those already familiar. But overnight or so it seemed this band of near unknowns became something else entirely: they became leaders who were able able through various means – political, military, and financial – to force the United States to respond to them in kind, by force. What’s obvious even now is that in the 21st century the old rules of the game no longer apply. Instead a very small knot of very dangerous people can compel a global superpower to engage in a military mission – in spite of its best laid plans.
Note: I’ll be hitting the road for several weeks…. So this is my last post for the duration.