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Self-Leadership: We lost it.

I’m going to ask you to indulge me a bit in this post. I’m shooting from the hip––and I want it to be that way. I don’t want to be too filtered or edited here, and that may offend, that may piss you off. I’m not intentionally trying to be provocative, it’s just that some things need to be said. And having said that, I’m not asking you to agree. I’m just asking you to consider what I’m saying. I know what I’m about to say is important. I’m old enough now and I’ve been around enough not to water it down by saying “I think” or “in my opinion.”

No––this is important stuff and if we don’t get a grip on it we’re heading in a whole different direction… Of course, that’s where you might want to go. If so––go alone. I’m not going with you. We are a very divided society right now and the fault lies squarely with our leadership. What you might not realize or acknowledge though, is that I’m not talking about the people at the top, though there’s plenty of blame for them, I’m talking about us––about you and me. We’ve failed at leadership. This country started with an incredible experiment. First of all, ours is the first country on earth founded on an idea. The fact that most people don’t know this fact is a huge part of the problem. The experiment was to try to create a true representative republic with truly democratically elected representatives who would govern, not rule. The idea behind this experiment was to place the natural rights of the individual above the hereditary or proclaimed rights, whims and desires of a sovereign. This means we were going to try to govern ourselves. As much as we take this for granted today, just a couple of hundred years ago this was the most radical step ever taken by man––greater even than Neil Armstrong’s “one giant leap for mankind.” Now before this gets too political, I want to make sure you understand that this is not a political rant and this is not just a political problem. What has survived despite all the challenges is that our politics is a direct reflection of our own will––more so than for any people or generation in history. What happens in our real lives is embodied in our politics, for better or worse. And that’s where we’ve failed. Right now, we’ve already lost it and if we want to keep this grand experiment going, we’d better find it again––and fast. The “it” we’ve lost is the will to govern ourselves. As I said, not just in politics. It happens in business, in family life, in our communities. We feel the loss when we notice that the same five people bother to attend the PTA meeting every month. We feel it when there is only one name on the ballot for the city council seat. We feel it hard every four years when we bitch and moan that we’re choosing a president from the “lesser of two evils.” It hits us right in the wallet when we complain about rising taxes or the cost of health insurance. But it also hits us where we work when complain that we’re “stuck” in a job. Or when you realize you’ve been ordered to do something stupid, inefficient or just plain wrong and you do it anyway because you don’t want to “rock the boat” or your better idea won’t be listened to and may even get you fired. And to steal the words of the modern sage Larry Winget, it’s your own damn fault…

When Wells Fargo got caught ripping off consumers, was that just the result of an evil plan hatched in secret C-suite meetings? No––people did it. Call it greed, cowardice or willful ignorance, but people went along every step of the way. The same goes for the fraud in the derivative markets on Wall Street or in the corporate offices of Enron. It goes for the rigging of auto inspection data at Volkswagen. It goes for the water crises in Flint, Michigan and the wholesale destruction of the economies of some of America’s greatest cities. And we see it when a group of teenagers taunt a mentally disabled man as he drowns––when instead of trying to save him, they turn it into a perverse form of entertainment. What exactly am I talking about? We’ve lost our capacity for leadership––for “self” leadership. Freedom comes with a price. I’m not talking about the justifiably glorified notion of ultimate sacrifice like the soldier sacrificing life and limb to protect our freedom. That’s obvious. I’m talking about the idea that if we’re going to govern ourselves––our own lives and our own nation, then that comes with responsibility. It requires that we accept responsibility to participate, to stand up––to put aside our selfish pursuits once in a while. This sometimes requires sacrifice and sometimes involves risk and real danger. But it is absolutely necessary and for one simple reason… If you don’t accept this responsibility, someone will step in and do it for you. And that’s never a good thing. This vacuum we leave when we don’t take care of our responsibilities is readily filled. It’s filled by tyrants, dictators and authoritarians. It’s filled by bosses and central planners. It’s filled by criminals and exploiters and profiteers. And don’t look for this in the form of an omnipresent “Big Brother.” This vacuum is filled by the authoritarian on your town planning board or your local board of education. Dictators emerge in your police department, at your town dump––in your Boy Scout troop or on the field at your high school football practice. We’re at a very dangerous threshold. There is a battle going on between those who would willingly surrender all responsibility to a central authority and those who want to be free. The first group is usually looking for comfort, security or convenience. It’s easier, more efficient––sometimes even “better” in a sense to have Big Brother, or Uncle Sam, handle the nasty, complex and sometimes incomprehensible duties of society. Unfortunately, those duties have now also expanded to cover the inconvenient, bothersome and sometimes onerous tasks necessary to a self-reliant person. Plato said this long before there was any notion of the modern dictator, whatever name you want to give him:

"This and no other is the root from which a tyrant springs; when he first appears he is a protector.” The second group realizes that all comfort comes with a price and that historically, abdicating these responsibilities to the authoritarian, in the form of a person or a committee, is always drastically more expensive, debilitating and destructive than accepting the burden of personal responsibility. In fact, the tyrant can be even more destructive and evil when elected by popular vote or when tyranny is practiced by a congress, board or directors or committee. As Clemenceau said:

"A collective tyrant, spread over the length and breadth of the land, is no more acceptable than a single tyrant ensconced on his throne.” The solution is simple––but profound. The most dedicated response is that you participate fully… This means running for political office––or blowing the whistle despite the risk that you may lose your job. Next is to participate on any other level. This means serving part-time on your PTA, your planning board or your town council. It means coaching your kid’s baseball team or volunteering for the next non-profit fundraiser. Finally, and here’s the bare minimum, it means becoming purposely informed, voting responsibly and doing your absolute best to provide for your own needs, desires and ambitions. This means that instead of just confirming your own bias, you take a sincere look at every candidate in the race and a very deep look at the one you support––before you cast your vote. It also means that instead of taking the commission and keeping your mouth shut, you make noise when your company is ripping people off. It means if you’re being asked to do something illegal or immoral in your work––you leave and find another job. It means when you see someone genuinely abused you step up and step in––not stand by or go along. At the very least it means when you see someone being attacked or drowning, you use your cell phone to dial 911, not to shoot video. Fortunately there are still plenty of good, caring, brave people doing the right thing every day. There are people who understand that all leadership starts with self-leadership. They understand that leadership has nothing to do with your position of authority, but rather has everything to do with your willingness to serve––at any level. I am an optimist. I do believe our better nature will prevail––but not by chance or accident. Our better nature will prevail when we embrace the responsibility of leadership, from the front lines to the c-suite, from the street to the halls of Congress.

Our better nature will prevail when we all acknowledge that “leader” is not a position of authority, but a role we must all accept––and that “leadership” is not someone else’s job, but ours.

Our better nature will prevail when we stop tolerating wretched behavior, apathy and complacency and fully commit ourselves to training, mentoring and cultivating the next generation of leaders. Our better nature will prevail when we finally shed our childish dependency on authority and serve one another without the need of a law or order to do so. I do believe our better nature will prevail and that we will restore and even expand self-leadership. But when? Well––what’s wrong with right now?

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