I’ve never been a big fan of “Survivor.” Yes, the reality TV show where contestants are dropped into remote locations and divided into “tribes” that compete against each other in a series of bizarre tasks—like eating bugs and ferrying coconuts across a swamp in their underpants. Each week, participants are voted off the show by their peers, usually after a variety of intrigues, secret deals, backstabbing, blatant lies and frequent displays of ruthless, unapologetic self-interest. In the end, the last survivor gets a $1 million prize.
Of course, there’s not much need to watch the show these days. Not when we’ve got the Republican presidential primary contests with pretty much the same story line. Ultimately, there will be one man left standing with the prized nomination, only to face President Obama in yet another “Survivor” game this fall.
Really, folks, is this any way to pick a president—the last person standing who’s managed to survive a grueling political season of unsavory tasks, back-room deals and unrelenting public attacks? I don’t think so.
It’s time that We, the People, insisted on a better process: One that genuinely helps us make a wise collective decision in picking the next CEO of our nation, rather than relying on undefined feelings and emotions, personal interests and preferences, and the seductive influence of negative advertising. Granted, the presidency is a huge (and hugely complex) job. But as a long-time organizational consultant and executive coach, I strongly believe that choosing a president requires essentially the same process as hiring the best candidate to lead a company. In fact, that’s how we should think about the upcoming election: We are hiring a president.
So what’s the first thing we need to do? Take away all the labels—Democrat, Republican, Conservative, Liberal, Progressive, Libertarian, whatever—they’re off the table. We only have one mission: To determine what’s in the best interest of the country and chose the right person to get us there.
Second, we need to ask ourselves, “What are the core values of such a leader?” Start with integrity. Without integrity—a foundational core of ethical values—leaders cannot lead. Their organizations may continue to be successful on some level, but they will ultimately falter. This lesson came to light earlier this month in the stunningly public resignation letter of Greg Smith, executive director of Goldman Sachs, published as an op-ed piece in The New York Times. In his letter, Smith condemned Goldman’s “toxic and destructive” culture, which allowed “morally bankrupt” people to put the firm’s trading profits ahead of their clients’ needs. “How did we get here?” he asked. “The firm changed the way it thought about leadership. Leadership used to be about ideas, setting an example and doing the right thing. Today, if you make enough money for the firm (and are not currently an ax murderer) you will be promoted into a position of influence.”
While some critics have questioned Smith’s methods, his message is something we should ponder, whether we’re choosing the leader for our company or the leader of our country. What values does this person really support? Do they represent a consonant system that perpetuates the kind of country we want to live in?
A leader has to be able to express such values in terms of a clear vision statement, followed up with a concrete plan of action. And boy, do we need an action plan! There’s infighting everywhere, lack of trust, low morale. People who try to speak up are shouted down or kicked out. Families are spending more money than they have coming in; large numbers of our population are substance abusers and self-centered fear is at the core running the show. These are some of the symptoms I see every day in dysfunctional organizations—symptoms of the lack of emotionally intelligent leadership, from top down.
At times our problems result from divergent values, rather than lack of values. Which brings me to the third thing we need to do: Set up forums for people to openly debate our values, instead of trying to manipulate discourse with distractions. (Do we really have to see Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich taunt Mitt Romney with an Etch-a-Sketch tablet over a casual remark made by one of his aides?) We must listen to what candidates have to say, weigh the logic, analyze how they act—versus how they claim to act—and consider the likely consequences of their actions. We must stay open to new ideas, but also determine what fixed values define our lives, the True North of our moral compass.
All this comes through hard work and courageous conversations, no shortcuts. As Greg Smith pointedly noted about Goldman Sachs, the firm “has become too much about
shortcuts and not enough about achievement.” Our expectations of our leaders (and of each other) need to be higher than ever, for the stakes are high: the survival of our uniquely American heritage.
We have to take responsibility for ourselves, our family, our company and our community. Over the years, I’ve counseled many clients about the importance of hiring moral leaders who can create unity and serve their organizations. Now this process might also help you decide how to vote in the upcoming election. The reward is your legacy. Now there’s a bonus for you!