A Leadership Lesson

Burlington, Wisconsin – She’s been gone a month. Between trying to get things organized at home and going back to work, I guess I’m starting to feel a little more normal. Travel helped – 10 days spent between Pittsburgh and Cape Cod, among loving friends, relatives, and some quality time with Jan’s brother.

Now I’m in an attractive small city about 30 miles southwest of Milwaukee, on business doing an inspection trip for a mobile communications vehicle we’re having built here.

While driving here from Milwaukee Airport, I had occasion to listen to Marketplace, a nationally distributed public radio business show. A commentary on today’s program caught my attention:

BENJAMIN BARBER: Paul Wolfowitz is crashing and burning at the World Bank not because he did or said something wrong – that’s debatable.

It’s because he’s an overbearing and arrogant bully trying to impose his will on an organization that depends for success on consensus – both among those who work at the Bank and the governments that pay for and sponsor it.

Simply put, the wolves are after Wolf because he failed to cultivate effective leadership. Not because of a mistake in moral judgment or because of his campaign against corruption.

He placed two former administration allies in high World Bank advisory office, and paid little heed to collegiality and common wisdom in an institution that depends on them for its effectiveness.

Like the world it serves, the Bank can be effective only when it has the collaboration of its staff, the support of its national funders and the good will of those to whom it makes loans.

That’s nearly impossible for Wolfowitz to achieve, because he’s the product of the administration he left behind: stubborn, zealously “principled” and absolutely certain of his own moral rectitude. Those who disagree are blind to truth, self-interested or traitors.

But leadership isn’t about giving orders. It’s about listening. Without common ground, no reform, no progress.

The World Bank faces a formidable agenda: correcting global inequalities and augmenting wealth in a world where investment capital is seen by many as the problem, not the solution. Putting Wolfowitz there, like putting John Bolton at the United Nations, was asking for trouble.

Like President Bush, who disdains the national community he was elected to lead and prefers his own voice to careful listening, Wolfowitz is self-destructing around his own self-proclaimed rightness.

Leaders, take notice: democratic leadership in a global world is a two-way street. You need those you lead and you must listen to those you lecture.

(Benjamin Barber runs the nonprofit Democracy Collaborative.)

This commentary set me to thinking about the kinds of leaders I have been both privileged and cursed to work under, what kind of leadership styles work in the type of work I do, and how listening is as important as anything else a leader does.

I’m currently blessed to be working for leaders who (mostly) listen. I can’t say the same for many of my colleagues in government at all levels. Maybe the Wolfowitz saga as played out in the media will send some kind of message to those in leadership positions as to what really works.

As for me, all I really needed to know about Mr. Wolfowitz was displayed in his brief appearance in Bowling for Columbine, as excerpted below:

Have a great week.

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