Leadership by What Works

February 9, 2012

My daughter’s ballet master opens every season with a little speech. She tells the young women that her academy recognizes two types of dancers: those who love to be seen dancing and those who love to dance. She wants only the latter.

Leadership, if not dancing, is a critical issue in an election year. If we parse what is being presented, though, it is more accurately understood as pretension.

This is not cynical, it is semantic. And being a journalist, I am an authority on both words and pretending.

For the craft of journalism requires keeping one’s ignorance hidden from the subject. Otherwise, the interview starts at such a basic level that time runs out before any useful information is imparted.

To put it as generously as possible, it is the job of the daily journalist to back fill, to learn what we didn’t have time to learn before the assignment was drawn. Although not exactly admirable, we at least place serving the readership above merely keeping our job.

The politician is another matter. he pretends so he can lead, i.e., pretending for pretension’s sake.

I have on my desk what the Pulitzer-winner David Mamet called the greatest book on politics ever written. It is William Allen White’s “Masks in a Pageant,” another Pulitzer winner’s notes on the politicians of his time (1868-1944). Mr. White provides us a template for differentiating the leaders from the pretenders.

His character sketches make clear that leadership is knowing what works and what doesn’t — or, more accurately, demonstrating the intelligence, judgment and character to be depended upon to seek what works and eschew what doesn’t.

There is not a member of our foundation who does not understand how rare that is today — Republican, Democrat or Libertarian.

Yet — and this is the discouraging part — knowledge of what works and what doesn’t in all areas of public policy has never been more available. Any Indiana politician can with a tweet arrange to sit down with the important economists, engineers and scientists of our day.

Until recently, politicians, with exceptions, were too busy to call them — too busy pretending.

Now comes the optimistic part.

Arnold Toynbee, in his great work “The Study of History,” says that he never came across a civilization that could not have been saved by a single individual at the right place and time. The adjunct scholars of our foundation fill that bill. I can name two dozen of them who, had they been consulted, could have diverted the public-policy crisis on this morning’s front page.

So our exceptions, though few, may be enough to save our state, our nation. That, at least, is what some of us believe, for true leadership is a powerful thing. The question is whether we as an electorate can distinguish it from the ersatz.

About a decade after the Iron Curtain lifted, an American network sent a crew to a mid-sized city in Czechoslovakia. The city had achieved sudden prosperity and the reporter was pressing its young mayor to give up the secret.

Had the mayor formed an economic-development committee? Was he offering rebates or incentives? Had the city council financed the new downtown hotel?

The mayor, seemingly puzzled, had not done any of those things. “We just did what your Milton Friedman (the American Nobel economist) told us to do,” he said.

In other words, he did what worked. His community after generations of leadership that only failed was historically attuned — desperate even — to try what might succeed.

This election cycle, before it’s too late, we need to identify leadership like that — the more unpretentious the better.


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