In yesterday’s New York Times Thomas Friedman asked “Who’s The Decider?” He observes:
No leaders want to take hard decisions anymore, except when forced to. Everyone — even China’s leaders — seems more afraid of their own people than ever. One wonders whether the Internet, blogging, Twitter, texting and micro-blogging, as in China’s case, has made participatory democracy and autocracy so participatory, and leaders so finely attuned to every nuance of public opinion, that they find it hard to make any big decision that requires sacrifice. They have too many voices in their heads other than their own.
Friedman apparently believes that today’s leaders’ reluctance to make hard decisions is due to their “fear of their own people” – that they’re listening more to the opinions of others than to their own inner voices. The implication is that if these folks just mustered the courage to take a stand then everything would be better. He concludes:
Yes, it’s true that in the hyperconnected world, in the age of Facebook and Twitter, the people are more empowered and a lot more innovation and ideas will come from the bottom up, not just the top down. That’s a good thing — in theory. But at the end of the day — whether you are a president, senator, mayor or on the steering committee of your local Occupy Wall Street — someone needs to meld those ideas into a vision of how to move forward, sculpt them into policies that can make a difference in peoples’ lives and then build a majority to deliver on them. Those are called leaders. Leaders shape polls. They don’t just read polls. And, today, across the globe and across all political systems, leaders are in dangerously short supply.
That all sounds great, and in a way kind of easy. “C’mon folks, just suck it up and decide!”
The only problem with Friedman’s argument is that it totally ignores another angle on today’s leaders: they actually are making lots of decisions – frequently with disastrous results. These decisions have resulted in the omnipresent stench of institutional failure that has permeated our world today – something I’ve already written about here and here. As Jeff Jarvis wrote recently:
We don’t trust institutions anymore. Name a bank or financial institution you can trust today. That industry was built entirely on trust — we entrusted our money to their cloud — and they failed us. Government? The other day, I heard a cabinet member from a prior administration call Washington “paralyzed and poisonous” — and he’s an insider. Media? Pew released a study last week saying that three-quarters of Americans don’t believe journalists get their facts straight (which is their only job). Education? Built for a prior, institutional era. Religion? Various of its outlets are abusing children or espousing bigotry or encouraging violence. The #OccupyWallStreet troops are demonizing practically all of corporate America and with it, capitalism. What institutions are left? I can’t name one.
While the leaders of these failing institutions may be concerned about what the common folk think, it’s not a matter of waiting to see what people want and then doing it. After all, most Americans want the rich to pay more taxes. So why are so many politicians resisting raising taxes on the rich?
Rather than tailoring their behaviors to accomplish what “their people” want, today’s leaders all too often focus on their own agendas and try to shield their decisions and objectives from the prying eyes of the public. When I first wrote about this, I mentioned the problems confronting institutions like Toyota and the Catholic Church. But we regularly get news of new cases of institutional cover-up of embarrassing and inexcusable behaviors. Right now the focus is on Penn State. Does anyone doubt we will soon learn of others?
Unlike Mr. Friedman, I don’t think today’s problems are stymied by leaders’ fear of making decisions. Rather, I think the problem today is that our world has changed profoundly; as a result, the rules for how things work have changed. However, most of our leaders are products of an earlier time, with different rules.
While we live in an interconnected world, our leaders are largely products of a culture rooted in individualism. As a result, while they may be aware of what the public thinks and wants, many of these leaders value their own interests and beliefs over the greater good. Meanwhile, those who are focused on the greater good are still stymied by the fact that they don’t know what the new rules are.
So what are we to do? We might start by recognizing that while we live in a brave new world, it’s not the first time humans have been confronted with profound change. Much of what we’re seeing today – some desperately clinging to the past while others flounder around looking for different options – is probably standard fare in such situations. Change is hard, and it takes time.
At first, nobody has the answers. But as time goes on and people become more familiar with their changed world, they begin asking the right questions and finding answers in sometimes unexpected places. They learn to adapt to change, and show others the way.
Some of those who most benefited from the way things were before would be the most resistant to change; this would include many leaders who find themselves confronted with today’s strange new world. In such a world, they would have the most to lose. But sooner or later they will be confronted with a choice: adapt or fail. That choice will be pressed upon them by others who have little to lose and much to gain under the new rules.
Contrary to what Friedman might think, leaders willing to confront today’s world are not in short supply. We just don’t know who many of them are right now; the world is still being run in many cases by members of the old guard. But they’re out there.
The growing impatience expressed with today’s leaders could be a sign that we will soon have a changing of the guard. Time will tell.