Saturday, December 6, 2008


U.S. political and economic leaders recently admitted that that the national economy is in recession and that the recession began as long ago as December 2007. Their admission merely confirms what many Americans have long known, or at least suspected. It is revealing that the financial and political leaders responsible for forecasting and managing economic health are among the last to recognize, or at least admit, what has been obvious to the rest of us. After all, the ability to assess current realities and develop strategies for action based on estimates of likely events has long been recognized as a fundamental leadership skill.

No leader is foolproof or infallible, so a certain risk of error is always present even with the most careful planning. However, leaders are expected to be able to evaluate facts, relate existing facts to historical lessons, calculate sensible contingency plans, and implement those plans based on changing situations. Those skills are fundamental for every leader in all situations. Indeed, as leaders are entrusted with more responsibility and power, they are expected to possess and demonstrate these fundamental skills with greater ability. And, when the occasional crisis occurs, leaders must manage the crisis with competence.

Competent crisis leadership includes the ability to avoid panic thinking and behavior. Granted, it is easier to talk about avoiding panic than to develop rational responses during crisis situations. On the other hand, competent leadership is never about doing what is easy. Panic is not a competent response to a crisis, however overwhelming the crisis may seem or actually be. During a crisis, leaders should follow the counsel that is most often found in the Hebrew-Christian religious texts: fear not.

Competent crisis leadership also involves identifying and protecting people and other resources that are more vulnerable because of the crisis. The current economic crisis will affect some persons and sectors of the nation more than others because of their special vulnerability. Leaders who do not or cannot recognize that reality, or who somehow cannot or will not create and implement sensible plans in view of it, are not ethically competent no matter what their other strengths may be.

That ethical component of crisis leadership has been brought into sharp focus by the way political leaders rushed to approve legislation that provides hundreds of billions of dollars to protect the investment banking industry. Meanwhile, homeowners facing foreclosure, automobile manufacturers and their workers, suppliers, pensioners, and other apparently less-influential but more vulnerable actors are still waiting to be rescued. Some political leaders and other commentators have openly questioned whether any federal relief should be provided to them.

The reluctant and, in some instances aggressive, refusal to protect such obviously vulnerable persons brings Hurricane Katrina to mind. That unpleasant memory is more painful, if not bitter, because as with Katrina, some of the political leaders who question whether the federal government should rescue vulnerable people in the current crisis boasted about their belief in "moral values" when they were seeking political office. Those leaders appear to have forgotten that concern for and protection of people in vulnerable situations is a basic principle common to all respected moral and religious systems.

The present economic crisis is also revealing about moral leadership in the religious and journalism professions. The news media pay close attention to the supposed political influence of religious conservatives in affecting election outcomes. Yet, hardly anything has been reported about how religious leaders are responding to the economic crisis, or even their present failure to be as forceful on behalf of the vulnerable as they have tried to be when working to influence elections and boost the political clout of their religious constituencies.

It has been amazing, but certainly not amusing, to observe the silence of religious leaders and organizations compared to their almost deafening rhetoric at other times. Where is the prophetic spirit of Martin King, Amos, Micah, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Jesus? What is the evidence that current U.S. religious leaders, of all political views, are advocating ethical public policies by political leaders? When will U.S. religious leaders remind political leaders about their moral duty to protect poor, weak, elderly, immigrant, young, and other vulnerable people during this crisis?

The recession offers several revelations about the state of political, economic, journalistic, and moral leadership in American society. These revelations are not flattering. It remains to be seen what lessons current and emerging American leaders will draw from them. There is much to be learned.

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