‘All I Want for Christmas Is Real Leadership’

By J.F. McKenna

What we regular folks really want for the holidays is obvious. Just look around.

Face westward toward our neighbors in Michigan, for starters. Right now Detroit, once called the Paris of the West by culture mavens, is scrambling to mitigate the damage of what may be the largest municipal bankruptcy in the nation’s history. A long-growing global economy has finally had a head-on collision with narrow-minded politics. The result is that Motown’s better days are behind it, with one Canadian observer declaring that the city is “a classic example of failed obamunism and personal responsibility; it played out the union-controlled socialism to the bitter end and it lost the destructive game—eventually all socialists run out of other people’s money, as Margaret Thatcher used to say. Detroit is now a picture of litter and filth with few suburbs left that take pride in their appearance.” Frankly, don’t be surprised to see Detroit headed to the global pawn shop soon, toting its donated art treasures to cut a 10-cents-on-the-dollar deal to keep afloat and out of court.

Things just as close but eastward, though not as tragic as Detroit’s tale, show the effects of an American economic engine fouled to the point that it can’t trigger a confident restart. In Pittsburgh iconic corporations such as Heinz struggle alongside longtime family businesses. As one small businessman told me there just last week, “My landscaping business was a moneymaker for years, but now I’m really cutting into my capital just to keep today’s bills paid. Frankly, Joe, I don’t understand it. I can’t recall it ever being this bad.”

“At the risk of getting biblical on you, we’re reaping the whirlwind of a lot of lousy leadership,” said Robbie Adair, my occasional partner in journalistic mischief. “In my opinion, it’s not so much the failure of leadership in the front office or at the front counter—but the ‘hired’ leadership at the government level, where regulations reproduce like rabbits and dim-witted bureaucrats concoct new ways to taser the business community.

“If things continue to go on this way,” Brother Adair lamented, “you’re going to see the term free market soon identified in crossword puzzles as an ‘archaic expression.’ I’m telling you straight—all I want for Christmas is real leadership. And, yes, that can be sung to the same tune as that classic Yuletide ditty.”

No argument from me. The only commonality between most government types, particularly feds, and the foot soldiers at the chamber of commerce is a taste for ugly ties. After that, one identifies the government folks by their general lack of business smarts and their overall disinterest in the core of wealth creation. You know, the making, mining and growing of things for customers.

To pinch a line from Adair, “There is a little-known second half to the saying I’m from the government and I’m here to help. The other half is I just don’t know how.”

Think I’m being harsh? No harsher than the latest, and the greatest, model of government ineptitude and overreach. So once more unto the breach, dear friends, to slash at the misshapen monster called Obamacare, our government-sponsored Grendel.

Even as I write from my digital corner, journals such at The New York Times deliver cheery countryside dispatches: As a small coterie of grim-faced advisers shuffled into the Oval Office on the evening of Oct. 15, President Obama’s chief domestic accomplishment was falling apart 24 miles away….HealthCare.gov, the $630 million online insurance marketplace, was a disaster after it went live on Oct. 1, with a roster of engineering repairs that would eventually swell to more than 600 items. The private contractors who built it were pointing fingers at one another. And inside the White House, after initially saying too much traffic was to blame, Mr. Obama’s closest confidants had few good answers.

No real answers look likely to appear anytime soon, either. And that’s because bureaucratic tinkerers don’t grasp the basics of business, management or real leadership. I wish I could report that they’ve forgotten everything they learned from Peter Drucker; but, truth is, most of them think Peter Drucker is a fashion label or a brand of Scotch. And those government whiz kids who do vaguely remember the father of modern management dismiss him and his thinking as old-school.

That’s a pity. For the rest of us, that is.

A couple of years ago, I briefly tub-thumped for a Drucker revival, noting that the late Austrian-born polymath remains the best guide not only for businessmen but for bureaucrats who like to play business. I pointed to a 1994 Druckerism that insists there is “no better way to improve an organization’s performance than to measure the results of capital appropriations against the promises and expectations that led to their authorization.”

Now let’s apply this Drucker yardstick to Obamacare—Santa Gov’s answer to coal in your stocking. According to to one poll, nearly 60 percent of the nation never really had government-managed health care on its Christmas list. Even worse, now that it’s here, the rear end of Obamacare, the payment and delivery segment, is still being built, making the President’s signature legislative effort the health-care version of a deluxe vehicle that boasts an expensive dashboard but includes no drivetrain.

As Drucker told Harvard Business Review readers, “How much better off the United States would be today had…feedback on government programs been standard practice for the past 50 years.” Drucker wrote that 20 Christmases ago. Apparently most of America’s leaders missed that issue.

So here we are this holiday season, caught in the iron grip of government-designed largesse but still holding out a little hope for that holiday miracle from the Obama Administration. “On Thanksgiving Eve, it announced a one-year delay for ObamaCare’s small-business health insurance exchange, a major part of the law,” wrote Colin McNickle of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. “Just before Independence Day, it announced a delay in requiring large companies to provide health insurance for their employees. Perhaps Mr. Obama will announce a one-year delay of ObamaCare, in toto, at 11:59 p.m. on Christmas Eve.”


To paraphrase Tiny Tim, “God help us, everyone!”

CBR contributor J.F. McKenna is a veteran business journalist and communications consultant. While at Industry Week magazine, he coined the expression “Total Quality Government” and co-chaired a series of national conferences on quality in the public sector. He still wonders why. Reach him at jfmckwriter23@yahoo.com or through his LinkedIn profile: Jos. F. McKenna.


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