A Dearth of Leadership

Dearth: “an inadequate supply; scarcity; lack”

When I grew up on a small southern Idaho farm, we didn’t have television in our home.  But I remember the time in 1962,  when, as an anxious nine year old, I huddled with my family around a cream-colored tube-type radio listening to news about the Cuban Missile Crisis.  I remember distinctly asking my Dad if he thought we were going to have a nuclear war.

He responded gravely but confidently, “If President Kennedy sticks to his guns, we’ll be ok.”


My Dad had not voted for Kennedy and never would, as far I I know, vote for a Democrat presidential candidate.  Around our house mere mention of the initials “FDR” was like cussing.

However, at the point in time when the chips were down and the future of our nation hung in the balance, my Dad expressed confidence in the office of the President and those who were assisting him in preserving the fragile peace.  President Kennedy marshaled the “best and brightest” of people from many backgrounds and political persuasions to assist him in decisions that were of great importance to our country. Then, he acted decisively and stuck to his guns.  That is called leadership.

Please fast forward with me nearly 48 years to our current time and the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill crisis.  Ironically, the geographical focal points then and now are not too far apart. The potential end game is not nuclear war or fragile peace, but the livelihood of millions, the future of the environment and our economic stability do hang in the proverbial balance.

Now, in contrast to listening to the small family radio in 1962, we are bombarded with newscasts about this event.  It was soon clear to me that the BP executives were living in denial or just hoping the fairy godmother would come down and clean the whole mess up.

And then, when President Obama declared crudely that he was going to find out whose a** to kick, I told my family that “There is certainly a dearth of leadership in this mess.”  Leadership is all about consulting the best and brightest, having the courage to exert intellectual honesty, and finding solutions, not laying blame.  I just didn’t see that happening anywhere.


A few weeks later, I was pleased to hear that I was not alone in my thinking.

On June 10th, I read an op-ed piece in the USA Today, where Mitt Romney came to precisely the same conclusion.

Has it come to this again? The president is meeting with his oil spill experts, he crudely tells us, so that he knows “whose ass to kick.” We have become accustomed to his management style — target a scapegoat, assign blame and go on the attack. To win health care legislation, he vilified insurance executives; to escape bankruptcy law for General Motors, he demonized senior lenders; to take the focus from the excesses of government, he castigated business meetings in Las Vegas; and to deflect responsibility for the deepening and lengthening downturn, he blames Wall Street and George W. Bush. But what may make good politics does not make good leadership. And when a crisis is upon us, America wants a leader, not a politician.

Mr. Romney went on to give several examples of excellent leadership – across the spectrum of political persuasion:

We saw leadership on Sept. 11, 2001. Then as now, black billows seemed to come from the center of the earth. Lives had been lost. The environmental impact was immeasurable. The looming economic impact from lost tourism was incalculable. Into the crisis walked Rudy Giuliani. While that was an incomparable human tragedy, how the mayor led New York City to recover is a useful model for the president. …

In a crisis, the leader must gather the experts — federal, state, local, public and private — not to discover who is to blame but to secure their active and continuous involvement until the crisis is resolved. There is extraordinary power inherent in an assembly of brilliant people guided by an able leader. In virtually every historic national crisis, our most effective leaders gathered the best minds they could find — consider the Founders in Philadelphia, Lincoln with his “Team of Rivals,” Roosevelt with scientists and generals seeking to end World War II, Kennedy with the “Best and Brightest” confronting the Cuban missile crisis.

There are certainly a lot of smart people available – from industry, academia, government and the general public.  There is no dearth of ideas, but there is a real dearth of leadership at the helm.

But even a gathering of experts won’t accomplish much unless a skilled leader uses their perspective to guide the recovery. So far, it has been the CEO of BP who has been managing the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The president surely can’t rely on BP — its track record is suspect at best: Its management of this crisis has been characterized by obfuscation and lack of preparation. And BP’s responsibilities to its shareholders conflict with the greater responsibility to the nation and to the planet.

Battling the oil crisis might not be the “change” that was high on the President’s agenda, but Murphy’s Law still reigns, bad things do happen, and we need leadership to lead us out of this big black hole.

The president must personally lead the effort to solve the crisis. He cannot delegate this quintessential responsibility of his presidency in the way he delegated the stimulus bill, the cap-and-trade bill and the health care bill. It may be an instance of learning on the job, but it is a job only he can do.

Kennedy was a young man; many of those he gathered around him were young, but youth didn’t stand in the way of purposeful action.  In times of crises, we don’t need excuses; we need results.

The president can learn a good deal from the crisis leadership of men and women in government and in business. Giuliani is a notable example, but so too are Washington, Adams, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Reagan and Kennedy. In a time of national crisis, we look to our president to acknowledge, as Harry Truman did, that it is at his desk where the buck stops.

This is not just a political issue.  It is an issue of capability, credibility, motivation and decisive action. It is not about placing blame.  There is plenty of that to spread around when the time comes.  Genuine leaders rise above faults they and others always have, and learn, like Kennedy, to marshal the best and brightest, listen to what they have to say, act decisively, and stick to their guns.  Then, and only then, will we be ok.

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