Leadership event focuses on nation’s economic and political strife

America needs better leadership.

Badly. And if we don’t get it soon, well, watch out. Really serious trouble could be lurking just over the horizon.

That theme was an unsettling takeaway from the uber-event staged last night by Bill George to promote his latest book on leadership.

George retired nine years ago after a decade as CEO at Medtronic. Since then, he has carved out a new, high-profile career writing, teaching and speaking out about the need for stronger leaders.

His “Summit on Leading in Crisis” was a hot ticket. Nearby parking ramps were stuffed to their rooftops, and more than 1,000 people filled the University of Minnesota’s Ted Mann Concert Hall. They were largely business school students, corporate and nonprofit managers, other professionals, public affairs practitioners and academics. Admission was free. So were Granola bars and apples.

George moderated a panel featuring four big names: John Donahoe, chair and CEO at eBay; David Gergen, director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University’s Kennedy School; Anne Mulcahy, chair at Xerox; and Marilyn Carlson Nelson, chair at Carlson Cos.

“We’ve come through what has certainly been the worst economic crisis of my lifetime,” George declared in opening the proceedings. Lots of folks say the troubles arose out of subprime lending, he said, but that’s not quite right.

“It’s more a crisis of subprime leadership.”

Mulcahy chimed in, calling it “so bizarre” that Barack Obama’s critics got so wrought up over the very thought of the president going into a classroom to urge children to stay in school. That controversy shows how leadership from the White House won’t be nearly enough, she said, stressing that leading players in other branches of government also need to rise above the divisiveness.

The crowd erupted with applause, and its strong reactions to several comments suggested that many want more public discussion of important issues. 

Gergen then served up a disturbing analysis. The country is becoming increasingly polarized, he said. Citing over-the-top anti-Obama slogans, he warned that the deepening divisions, in a country teeming with handguns, could lead to violence and turn the governing of the nation into a more difficult task.

Gergen said he didn’t think the harsh criticism of the president reflected racial prejudice. But he compared today’s shrill anti-Obama banners and signs to the ugly cartoons in the Lincoln presidential library in Springfield, Ill., to make his point that some of Obama’s critics are going too far. Some of the cartoons, circulated before the Civil War, depicted Abraham Lincoln as a baboon.

“I think it’s a very dangerous situation for the country,” he said of the current divisiveness.

Gergen, who is also a commentator for CNN, repeated his concern a couple of hours later on the television network.

“We bear responsibility,” he said, laying a share of the blame for the divisiveness on the media. The crowd clapped mightily.

Then he suggested that media outlets, by shining the limelight on “birthers” who claim Obama was born abroad and therefore should not be president, are “manufacturing controversy.” More applause.

George, a director at Goldman Sachs, has been a critic of CEO pay practices. But without mentioning Goldman, now being targeted again by critics for its hefty bonuses, he defended high pay for top executives so long as their performance merits it.

Gergen came back with another warning. He noted that Wall Street investment firms appear to be returning to the high-pay practices that preceded last year’s financial meltdown. Many Americans have put these companies on probation, he said. If these firms stumble again, as they did last year, he suggested that much of the public will again react angrily — so much so that “all hell will break loose.”

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Phyllis Stenerson on 09/18/2009 - 01:37 pm.

    The country also needs better followership, i.e. enlighted, informed, engaged citizens. Plus more courage, commitment and openness to diversity and change among the electorate. Better media, as mentioned by Gergen. Also, serious campaign finance reform so money does not so directly buy public policy or lack thereof. Minnesota is a leader in promoting and practicing good government, until recently. Let’s get very serious about this, very quickly.

  2. Submitted by dan buechler on 09/18/2009 - 01:49 pm.

    Not a word on foreign policy? We or the media seem to be turning inward?

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