Christopher Wilson & Assoc.

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Location: Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Please Mr. President, where’s the “we”?

This week the American public sent a strong rebuke to their President. The Senate seat that has been both Democratic and Kennedy since 1952 was lost to Republican Scott Brown. To the conservative press this is vindication that Americans were hoodwinked into making the wrong choice in 2008. For the Democrats the shock of a 30% vote swing in the bluest of blue states has yet to wear off, but the question each of them must be wondering is why?

Democratic Senator Bob Casey suggested in an interview with Fox News yesterday that the main message from the Massachusetts election is the need to focus on the economy, the frustrations about job growth, and the perception that Washington isn't listening.

My sense is that the frustration goes much deeper than that. The frustration is more akin to a sense of betrayal on the President’s main election platform. This may be intentional, but I doubt it. I suspect it is due more to a lack of appreciation about the nature of the very profound bargain Obama actually made with the American people. To be sure he made promises about the war in Iraq; about health care; about getting the US out of its economic mess; and about getting people back to work. To be honest he really can’t be faulted for his aggressive pursuit of this agenda from day one, in stark contrast to the laissez-faire approach to problems adopted by his predecessor. So why the discontent?

Since assuming the Presidency, the economic and international policies of his Administration have not differed greatly from his predecessor. Sone might suggest his health care reforms do, except that they have become so watered down as to become mere incrementalism at best. Groups from the left or right debate his strategies and his successes, but honestly one year is hardly sufficient to make much of a dent in the issues he has been grappling with. So why the headlong flight from the President’s tent?

All this does not come close to explaining what has the President in trouble with his own constituency. The previous President, for instance, was duplicitous and subject to course reversals on many fronts, without his core constituency beginning to desert him. So again why is Obama apparently being abandoned?

To answer this one needs to keep in mind that the promises about the war, health care, the economy -- these were not the ones that got the President elected. Barrack Obama was elected on the basis of three words. “Yes we can”. In so many ways these three words resonated deeply in the consciousness of Americans and people all around the world.

Yes we can: be reassured you’re not alone.

Yes we can: don’t be afraid. No problem is too big that we can not tackle it together.

Yes we can: because the problem is not for someone else to solve for us but for us to solve together.

Yes we can: because we don’t have to wait. We can begin to make changes from today.

Yes we can: because each and every one of us can contribute ideas, energy and resources.

Yes we can: because the government doesn’t have all the answers, it is not per se “in charge”. In fact the government is dependent on every one of us to assume a level of leadership.

Yes we can: because we are all decision makers and owners in this collective enterprise.

Yes we can: because while the solution may begin with us, we can trust that the government will be by our side.

Yes we can: because we as a people have a long history of working out our differences so that together we can build a better future.

Yes we can: because we are not special interests but we all of us together: men and women, young and old, rich and poor, tenth generation and new immigrant, First Nations people and all who have come afterwards.

Yes we can: because we are all willing to share in the burden of creating a new future and assume a commitment to each other for that future.

Yes we can: because we are not trying to fix the problems of and in the past but we are working towards constructing a new American future.

Yes we can: because we are filled with hope – a hope founded on the strength of our togetherness.

At the time, Barrack Obama may have only meant “we” the Democratic Party or his future administration. He may only have meant a small cadre of advisors and leaders. Whatever his meaning, that was certainlky not what the American people heard. Among those long accustomed to leaders who sought power for themselves, who led for some and not others, who showed little concern for the problems of the people, who showed no remorse for their lies and their tactics of manipulation over people they had promised to represent, “yes we can” was received as nothing less than an offer for a new moral contract between the citizenry and their government. “Yes we can” was an offer of partnership over patriarchy; stewardship over leadership; and an offer to return to democratic principles over the mutated version that democracy has become.

Americans were thirsty for this change. The new social contract Obama offered seemed like water in the desert. They willingly embraced him as the vehicle for re-assuming the power of their own citizenship.

Consequently, the very fact that the process of governance has not perceptibly changed since the Bush Administration may seem to some as evidence that Americans may voted for the right idea but the wrong person.

I would suggest that this amounts to breaking the profound but subtle moral contract he made with Americans during his election. Where is the “we” in his speeches and remarks today that was so ubiquitous and inclusive on the campaign trail? Mr. Obama became President Obama, the leader of the free world, and leaders must of a sense take the bull by the horns and lead, yes? That’s unfortunately where the problem lies.

He didn’t get elected on the basis of taking charge. He got elected on the basis of an expectation that he could facilitate everyone else taking charge. The President may have been overcome by the great demands of each day and found it easier to fit in with long established traditions. He may have been seduced by leadership power offered by the Presidency. Yet his contract with Americans positioned him as a collaborative leader and champion of the significant cultural change – the social learning, the new attitudes, arrangements, and conventions -- that were implied by “yes we can”.

Instead, the president seems increasingly identified with the traditional role of leadership which Americans so obviously wanted to change. In doing so, he knowingly or unknowingly steals the right of ownership, the right to make a difference, from everyone who elected him. In his administration it is not “yes we can” but “yes I can”.

I’m in no position to judge whether this breach was accidental or intentional. I am willing to give the President the benefit of the doubt. Power is after all very seductive especially when it is willingly offered. But if he is to avoid being judged harshly in future polls and by history, he needs to begin using his position to demonstrate the truth and power of “yes we can”. In a sense he needs to stop trying to have all the answers, and have faith that the answers he needs can and will be found among the many Americans willing to step forward and share his burden. Whether he realizes it or not the American project has become fundamentally more participatory.

Americans every day are doing incredible things together to better their children, their economy, their environment, their communities and for each other. The Office of the Presidency has a power like no other to showcase these collaborative actions to the nation and to the world. To do so would reaffirm the power of “yes we can”. Alternatively, if Americans are resisting what appears to many to be a top down implementation of health care, then he should walk away in favour of facilitating a process in which all Americans can see that they have the opportunity to shape a system of health care bottom up. Why impose a system and prove that Americans can’t? Of what use is winning the Senate battle on health care, if you lose the trust of the nation?

Whatever he does, he needs to recognize the need for restoring trust. The President made a fundamental contract for change, “yes we can”, and then apparently reneged. In his campaign he successfully called forth the spirit of all the things that make America and Americans great but in his recent actions he has tried to put that spirit back in a box. But it just won’t go. Americans want to realize the truth of it, “yes we can”.

Christopher Wilson, January 23, 2010

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Looking For a Fresh Start in Ottawa

Over the last two months, The Ottawa Citizen has published a number of stories, editorials and op-ed pieces that have underscored the dysfunctional nature of municipal government in Ottawa. In particular, with the onset of municipal election season, various writers have pointed to few mayoral and councilor candidates with truly leadership caliber.

My question is whether anyone has assembled any leadership criteria that could be used to assess candidates to lead Council and the municipal bureaucracy towards the kind of future the citizens of Ottawa think they might like have (leaving aside for the moment a legacy of complete absence of shared vision for the city). What kind of skills or competencies should we expect of these candidates? How will we judge one candidate from another? In any other hiring process we would begin by assessing a candidate’s skills and then judging whether the candidate can adjust to the needs of a new organizational context. So why, as Denley suggested November 19th, can’t we do the same with our municipal leaders?

If readers will allow, let me make a first attempt. Right off we should, as Gray warned January 6th, avoid those would-be “politicians with simple solutions [who] are charlatans treating the electorate as fools. If solutions were simple, the problems would already be solved.”

Equally offensive in my mind are those that claim to have all the answers. Typically these are the big appendage swinging leaders who claim to be “in-charge” and whose leadership style usually consists of some combination of patriarchy, exerting dominance, finding fault but avoiding blame, promoting division and fear, and exacting retribution. On December 23rd, Gray said that “Council needs compromise, not division.” But coherence in Council will not come by electing a bunch of aspiring Napoleons.

Those Napoleons are the romanticized “white-knight” leaders who we believe will save us from ourselves. When we are unwilling to make hard choices (which is often), then we call upon the white knights to make them for us so we can stay in our perpetual dream-state of entitlement. In reality, however, anyone claiming they can “take charge” of the municipality is either woefully ignorant of the complexity of many local issues or a petty tyrant waiting to prey upon a rather naïve citizenry. If we are truly looking for new leaders, we should see if any candidates in a moment of honesty come forward publicly and say they don’t have all the answers … but they’d work with people in the community to try and find them and continually report on their progress in doing so.

In my mind, we don’t need “serious leaders”. We need an entirely new kind of leader – a collaborative leader capable of guiding – not directing or managing -- our diverse community through a long list of complex issues. I think Roy Thomas was on the right track when he said on November 30th that “the required leadership at the municipal level is not authoritative or dictatorial but persuasive.” So here is my list of competencies that I would expect from more “persuasive” candidates in the next election.

To begin with they would need to be effective listeners and learners. Our most common way of listening is not listening to others at all but listening to our own internal dialogue. We need leaders who in listening are open to what is possible; to what is may be different but true for someone else; to what they and others contribute to a problem; and to that perspective which is whole and common to each. Such leaders can detect reason in all claims in conflict, recognize the particular legitimacy of each, sense where the grounds of concord are, and bring competitors into a shared sense of what is possible. We don’t need to elect more experts. Experts have nothing to learn so their expertise turns into a serious learning disability.

The people we need should be more stewards than traditional leaders because they would recognize the distributed nature of the power, knowledge and resources in council, within the municipal bureaucracy and across the community. Stewards support the decision making of others and since most of the major decisions this community faces require some form of willing cooperation, the quality of stewardship is much more in demand than any ability to dictate or coerce.

These leaders should be committed democrats willing to encourage local residents to take ownership and accept responsibility for their own conditions and actions. To paraphrase a popular 60s slogan, “if you’re not part of the problem, then how can you expect to be part of the solution”. Denley suggested (January 5th) the leaders we need should help to restore the public's faith in our own self governance, but to do so they will need to put more information, resources, and decision making in the hands of those closest to an issue or problem. They need to see themselves as agents of the people not their master.

We need to elect placed-based, collaborative leaders who have a powerful commitment to Ottawa not to specific causes or problems; not to specific ideologies or political parties; and certainly not to narrow interest groups. They won’t be expected to provide us with a readymade vision, but they would be expected to act as animateurs capable of facilitating its collective emergence.

They must be conveners. They should be able to use the various forms of their own power (authority, reward, coercive, expert or referent) to bring people together in as many ways as possible, but they should also not be afraid to use the power of others to bring people together as well. This community is made of many people with many talents.

The people we need to elect should be boundary-crossers, willing to work across traditional organizational boundaries, who are not bound or intimidated by ‘turf’ struggles and whose commitment to end results can be shared with others as a kind of partnership glue. "The leadership that makes other cities work is bigger than the public sector,” said Caroline Andrew in a November 16th article. “It is a coalition of the private sector and civil society, which Ottawa doesn't have." We desperately need someone to bridge this gap.

As a consequence, the leaders we elect should also be coalition builders able to enunciate a bigger picture and regional possibility, one that has the power to draw in the commitments of others in the pursuit of a different community future. They would also need to be masters of 360 degree accountability up, down and across the community.

We need people who are integrators and systems thinkers, who can see the interdependence among the many issues, organizations and sectors of the community. Transportation, economic development, social inequity, cultural vitality are all interdependent phenomena. Our new leaders need to be more than simple, problem solving, fix-it men, taking the knowledge of the past to recreate it in the future. They need to be facilitators and communicators of a community possibility that would allow us all to begin living into it even from today.

There is no doubt that the people we need should be risk takers, innovators, and entrepreneurs, willing to apply the same entrepreneurial spirit that we have seen time and again in our native start-up companies but applying it instead to the betterment of Ottawa. They would not be, as Denley suggested on January 5th, the type of risk-averse, careerists who put their own interest above the community. They would, however, embrace partnerships, citizen empowerment and innovative service over patriarchy, dependence and entitlement.

They would also need to be champions of change, not it’s directors or micro-managers. They should be able promote collaboration among groups of stakeholders through ongoing dialogues and local forums. They would not, as Denley described December 27th, “reduce their colleagues to props” but raise them up as the co-creators of change that they are. Such leaders would not take credit for the efforts of groups, but they would repeatedly benefit from their willingness to give credit where credit is due.

They would be process designers, designing cooperative processes without prejudicing their outcomes, because they understand that it only through the authentic ownership by community partners that effective solutions will be invented, implemented and achieved.

The people we need to elect should see themselves as leaders of cultural change within the City administration and within the community at large. They need to be able to model in their own behaviour and actions the same kind of cooperation, social learning, attitudes, and conventions that will be needed by citizens and organizations of all stripes in this community.

Lastly, they would have to be effective educators because the collaborative capacities and partnership skills we so urgently require are just not in common currency. In our modern condition, we have lost much of our knowledge of how to work together. We have adopted autonomy over community; indulgence over service; entitlement over ownership. We have come to expect our leaders should be more than human and that as citizens it is our God given right to have something for nothing. We have generally forgotten that as a community it is our mutual commitments that ultimately sustain us, provide us with homes and a future to build towards.

The big questions for the next election remain, as Mohammed Adam noted December 28th, “where are the dynamic new leaders going to come from and, [even] if they emerge, will voters back them?” What’s our level of deserving? Do we as citizens still want the snake-oil messiahs to come and pretend to relieve us of the responsibilities for our lives and community? Or will we accept our own contribution to this city’s dysfunction, its lack of creativity, its indecisiveness, and its mediocrity and choose a group of leaders who will listen to us, work with us, prod us, and even chasten us in order to help find a path out of our mess? My cynical bet is on the former but I’m eager to be proved wrong.