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GP28Jan04: Getting Past the B-Team
Field Soldiers. If you’ve put in time in the armed forces, you probably have heard old warriors distinguish between “field soldiers” and “garrison soldiers.” The “garrison soldier” does well in peacetime, successfully fighting his way through the red tape back at headquarters, and handling with aplomb the intrigue and jousting around the Pentagon. This pretty well sums up our armchair generals and aptly describes the coiffed, made-for-TV, bemedaled marshals who take up politics upon retirement.
Then, of course, there was the kinetic General Patton. He perpetually stuck his foot and mouth in it when dealing with the press and politicians. But, more than once, his Third Army saved the fat of his World War II superiors, turning on a dime and capturing victory when they had made strategic blunders. Unforgettable is George C. Scott’s movie portrayal of the General personally unsnarling a traffic jam of tanks, trucks, and jeeps to keep the war moving along. Plain and simple, he was a “field soldier” meant to fight with sword and gun, but a bumbler when it came to typewriters. In fact, he was ill-equipped to deal with peace.
The B-Team. All this comes to mind, because we are now working our way through our second decade of B-Team politicians and businessmen, garrison soldiers all. Until we get past them, we will not mount the attack on the 21st century that is vital to our health and welfare. We need to close the aimless transition period discussed in our letter of January 14, 2004, “Looking for History and Better Bread.” That calls for men and women who are not place seekers or space occupiers.
Presidents Clinton and Bush (the younger) have both showed amazing acumen in their non-stop running for office. But they have displayed little aptitude for wise governance and their brigades of placemen have been peopled with retreads who did not even shine in previous eras. Generally, the present field of Democratic candidates have limped through their lines and can’t quite pretend to play the part they’re trying out for, inspiring vacillation and indecision among Democratic voters. Because of their weakness, ex-President Clinton continues to pull the strings of his party just offstage, mightily hindering its resuscitation.
Modest Men Might Move Mountains. So too, in the worlds of business, academia, church, media, etc., where the generals in every domain would rather preen and prance than perform. Jim Collins, of Built to Last and Good to Great fame, tells us to look for more subdued individuals of substance and moderation such as Darwin Smith of Kimberly Clark, implicitly foregoing high-ego, charisma fellows of the Welch, Ellison, Trump variety. At a minimum, we can learn from him that those we need to elevate are not the high profile boys worshipped by the media. We need to tame our arrogance, mirrored by these roosters, which these times have done so much to magnify.
The last time we had empowered an A-Team in business or politics seems to have been during the Reagan Era (1981-1987). That, incidentally, is when the TV program (1983-1987) of the same name was running. Reagan, of course, was no Churchill, or FDR (whom he much admired), or Lincoln, or Bismarck, but at least he made the team. With his stupendous defense budgets, he broke the back of the Soviet Union. In retrospect, what he did best was to disarm his enemies.
What might we be looking for in the new A-Team? What are the current requirements of greatness? We ask these questions because it’s not clear that we have worked out job descriptions for the men and women we would put at the helm. We have improvised at our peril, and have wound up with profligate improvisers in charge who make up the job as they go along. Excessive, they have run down our store of political and economic capital. It is no accident that our federal and state governments are drowning in a sea of debt and engulfed by an ocean of unfunded, off-balance sheet obligations that don’t show up in their accounting.
Cooks Offstage. In this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine (January 25, 2004, pp. 61-62), you can read about peripatetic Sara Jenkins, clearly an extraordinary cook, who does not have her own restaurant and, as a result, does not have a grip on stardom. Incidentally, she is the daughter of Nancy Jenkins—as fine a food writer as we have encountered. So food runs in Sara’s blood. She simply knows how to cook well, a field soldier in a world of garrison soldiers. Her dishes range afield to braised rabbit with chickpeas or veal liver and dandelion greens, a palate born of living in London, Paris, Lebanon, Hong Kong, Madrid, with frequent visits to Italy. As she says, “The thing is that I really like to cook. I don’t really want to be a small-business owner. I don’t want to spend my hours of the day crunching numbers.”
And yet she has more than a little of what we need from our presidents and chief executives—a love for the real job. She is up to the hard work, rather than the cosmetics. There are many passionate cooks of her breed just offstage, just as there are politicians and business people of similar dedication who are not on the front pages but who have intimations of what destiny has in store for the nation and who understand the obligations of governance. We must look far and wide for our cooks and our leaders, since the more obvious choices are run of the mill types better fitted to be impresarios at chain restaurants.
Professional Demeanor. We will soon be posting comments from Martin Van de Weyden, editor of the Medical Journal of Australia, on the Global Province. He notes that under Cincian Law Roman patricians could not accept recompense for legal services but instead would labor pro bono for the citizenry they helped. Now, he laments, lawyers work largely for the lucre and not for their clients or for humankind.
We need pro bono publico from all our leaders where they are willing to diminish themselves to enlarge the commonweal. We will also be talking soon about Paul Farmer on the Global Province. A doctor and anthropologist extraordinaire, he has focused his practice on the poor (especially in sorely beset Haiti, a open wound made worse by our 1990’s diplomacy), resulting not only in better medicine but better public health practices. It’s safe to say that he would feel you cannot heal and enrich society if you are too busy feeding at the trough, helping only yourself and your friends.
A pro bono attitude, we would suggest, is the only thing that distinguishes the professional who would have any claim on our regard from the hack who should not be certified. Otherwise, a lawyer is an ambulance chaser. A physician is a leech.
Global Dimension. Foreign Policy, a Washington magazine, will soon be added to our list of best magazines on the Global Province. Offspring of a foundation, it is conspicuously global in its outlook, using cultural topics such as the world wine business and the sushi trade in order to explain how globalization is threading its way through our life. It explains not how we best our neighbors but how we link our fate to theirs. It shows, too, that we must manage globalization or it will nip us in the tail.
In this regard, we are reminded how resolutely parochial the Washington establishment has been in the latter half of the twentieth century into the present day. We justly call Washington politicos Beltway Bandits, because they are out of touch with Wichita and Tampa. But, as importantly, they lack a connection with Kyoto or Helsinki. It is no longer meaningful to say that a President is good domestically, or strong in foreign affairs. Today foreign and domestic are inextricably bound up with each other, and you cannot do either one well without excelling at the other. Inward-looking nation states will not survive the 21st century. Perhaps this even means that we should permit citizens of other countries to take on chores in our state and federal governments.
What we’re looking for now, then, is men and women who want to do the real job instead of the theatrics, pursue the obligations rather than the privileges of their role, and consider all the world’s countries their citizens. This will be the century of global stewardship. That’s a different kind of job description, but the minimum required for anyone who aspires to head up any of our institutions. It gives us a way of sorting through candidates for all our top jobs. Right now we are simply judging them on style, which means we are often buying empty suits.
For more on leadership, kindly see our letters of June 11, 2003, “Headhunting: Searching for the Globally Homeless” and June 24, 2002, “Risky Business.”
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