While it may be my own warped sensibility, I find a common thread in the following recent news items:
• President Obama’s treatment of Harvard Professor Gates’ recent conflict with the Cambridge Police,
• Obama’s struggles with health care policy,
• Mike Bloomberg’s insistence on Mayoral control of education, and;
• The cascading pay-for-play political scandal in New Jersey.
The common thread is the importance of principled leadership in public life, and the often difficult choices that principles create for our leaders.
President Obama, having experienced racial profiling personally, initially provided unequivocal support to his friend, Professor Henry Louis Gates. It is easy to identify with the horror and indignity of being arrested for disturbing the peace in your own home. Coupled with the issue of racial profiling it seemed to be a clear miscarriage of justice. However, as more details emerged, it appeared that both the police and Professor Gates shared some blame for the conflict. President Obama then faced a clash of principles- his abhorrence of racial profiling and his desire to move the country to a new era of race relations. His condemnation of the police was an uncharacteristic burst of heat from our typically cool chief executive. However, upon reflection, he sought to resolve the issue in his characteristically thoughtful and direct way. He spoke to both the arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley and to Professor Gates, and went before the media to accept blame for escalating the conflict with his own rhetoric. He then invited the two men to the White House for a beer and the opportunity to get to know each other in more pleasant surroundings.
We, of course react with sympathy to the President’s sense of self-confidence and his honesty, and perhaps even develop a deeper understanding of both the impact of racial profiling and the difficult job our police have on the front lines of public safety and criminal justice. At the heart of all this is a President with a deep set of principles, clear values and an almost unparalleled ability to communicate his views.
If only health care, the issue that he tried to focus our attention on the night of his recent press conference, was as simple as the issue of race! Which is only to say that these are two of the most complicated issues now before us. The President wants to bring health care coverage to the nearly 50 million people who have no coverage. He wants to do this without adding to the tax burden of working and middle class Americans. He wants people to have the ability to choose their own health care provider. He thinks the current system is too expensive. These beliefs and principles are difficult to reconcile with each other. The health care system may be too expensive, but it is allowing people to live better and longer lives than ever before. How much would you pay for a better and longer life—for yourself and for your family? How do we, as a nation, make decisions about limits on health care? We don’t want to ration health care, but without limits, costs can only continue to escalate.
Principled leadership requires, just as with the Gates-Crowley conflict, that there be an explicit discussion of competing needs and values. The health care issue is more complicated than the conflict in Cambridge because of the vested interests and dollars involved in the outcome. Too many lobbyists and advertising dollars will be devoted to distorting the truth, although the need for clarity and frank discussion will remain. At some point, the President will need to invite the antagonists of the health care debate to the White House for a beer too. In fact, he might want to invest in a couple of kegs and maybe some stronger stuff as well. This conversation will result in a more-than-one-beer thirst.
Closer to home, here in New York City, Mayor Bloomberg seems to have finally gotten the pathetic New York State Senate to agree to maintain Mayoral control of the city’s schools. The Mayor has been steadfast in pushing this key element of his agenda. Just as he has in financial management, sustainability, public safety, and public health, the Mayor defined and then adhered to his principles. His consistent articulation of his core sets of beliefs and principles is at the heart of his success as Mayor and as a leader. You need not agree with everything he does to admire his leadership. He may be accused of arrogance and a short temper, but no one thinks he simply goes with the political flow. Like President Obama, we have come to expect truth telling from our Mayor.
Also closer to home we see that too many public officials in New Jersey are for sale. Not only is the public trust violated but we are simultaneously treated to the horrifying spectacle of religious leaders laundering money. Governor Corzine may be discovering that he has made one too many accommodations with the corrupt power brokers that actually run New Jersey and now his own political future is in question. There is always a line between the deals you make to accommodate legitimate interests and those that are made as a result of dollars passed along in a cereal box. Our leaders have to make sure they can tell the difference between Captain Crunch and cold cash.
The people who run our nation and its institutions must make difficult choices, and those choices are typically best made when they are guided by an underlying sense of clear principles and ethics. This is true of elected leaders, but is just as important for people leading all of our organizations.
The key to effective management and inspired leadership is principled and consistent leaders: People who persist in the face of adversity. We see it in Washington, we see it in City Hall, we see it throughout our communities. When I see principled, ethical leaders it gives me great hope, even during these difficult times. As to what I see in Trenton, New Jersey and Albany, New York—I’m afraid I’m not really sure.