Leaders or Hucksters?

As published on LinkedIn Influencers on March 21st, 2020.

I woke up before 5am this morning, slightly later than my new normal of 4am, with words from “Ironic” by Alanis Morissette playing in my head. For a minute, disoriented, I wasn’t sure whether I was about to laugh or cry. And then I cried.

In January of 2008, I decided I would start blogging, and I hired a talented writer and friend, Deborah Siegel, to work with me. If you need a refresh as to what was happening in the United States at that time, the topics and people included President Bush, sub-prime mortgage crisis, Ben Bernanke Chair of the Federal Reserve, Hank Paulson Treasury Secretary (my former boss), and US Presidential candidates dropping out like flies. In fact, on the day Deborah and I worked together for the first time, we paused to listen to the news as Hank Paulson made a special announcement regarding the unprecedented (at the time) financial interventions of the US government to try and bail out the economy. I was so fired up and pissed off that I started to rant, but Deborah simply said, “Write about it.” And so we did. We submitted a piece titled “The Confidence Man” to the Huffington Post, and it was published on the front page.

Today’s announcement by U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson is but the latest effort by the current administration to downplay the severity of the current economic crisis. In the grand old American tradition of hucksterism, Paulson’s prescription is a sorely misleading sell.

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It’s time to wake up and smell the economy. Sadly, there’s no short and easy fix to the longer-term problems created by excessive borrowing combined with rampant consumerism. Yet Paulson insists (White House Stimulus Fact Sheet, Jan. 18, 12:03pm, WSJ.com), “By passing an effective growth package quickly, we can provide a shot in the arm to keep our fundamentally strong economy healthy and help keep instability in the housing and financial markets from more adversely affecting the overall economy.” Believing the economy to be grounded on a “solid foundation,” Paulson is ignoring the walls falling down.”

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Fast forward 12 years. Today, and every day for the past week, we have had government leaders and financial gurus appear before us on the same news channels as in 2008. In fact, this very second, as I hit publish, we are awaiting an announcement on another historical financial and legislative intervention, including billions, if not trillions of dollars worth of interventions. Instead of President Bush, we have President Trump. Instead of Treasury Secretary Paulson, we have Treasury Secretary Mnuchin (another former Goldman boss, my direct one). However, unlike 2008, we also have an array of health experts to listen to, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. If you flip from channel to channel as I have done unhealthily for the past couple of weeks, all you will see are panels of “experts”. Some of these politicians and health experts are giving us facts and useful information on how to take action against the Coronavirus. And some are not.

Isn’t it ironic? Don’t you think?

The financial crisis of 2008 is obviously different than the crisis we’re currently facing. This time around the trigger is a global pandemic. Should we have foreseen the possibility of this and had a better plan? Heck yes. Will people, many people, die because of the lack of foresight and planning? Sadly, the answer is already yes. As of this writing, there were 18,900 confirmed cased in the United States and 263 deaths. 26 people are dying every hour in Italy. And beyond the absolutely devastating loss of life, there is the short term and long term economic and social impact.

Once again I find myself screaming at the television, and so once again I am turning to writing. This time around, I chose the medium of poetry to express my frustrations.

I keep thinking. Asking. “Why this is all so surprising”? Do you? I am not in to blame and shame. but I am into – leadership, responsibility, accountability. It’s a big deal to have NOT been better prepared. In all the big and obvious ways. And in all the invisible and hidden ways. A very big deal. This is about some people in particular. Those with big titles, big salaries, big platforms, big influence, big teams. But most of us. As well. It’s a big deal to witness and unpack and understand what all of this exposes. It will also be a big deal to respond. rethink, regroup, rebuild, reconnect. NOW. And especially. When the droplets settle and disappear.

Earlier today I looked up the term hucksterism, as I am not sure I have seen or used this word since 2008. Let me define it for you:

Hucksterism: To promote or attempt to sell (a commercial product, for example) in an overaggressive or showy manner.

Now, how about another word?

Leadership: A simple definition is that leadership is the art of motivating a group of people to act toward achieving a common goal. They are the person in the group that possesses the combination of personality and leadership skills to make others want to follow their direction.

We have, and always will, live in times of hucksters and leaders, and it has and will always be up to us to figure out who falls into which bucket. What I can do, what we all can do, is pay attention. Make note. Remember. Act. And throughout all of this, my favorite definition of insanity keeps coming to mind: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome.

So President Trump. Everything is not perfect and great and awesome and amazing. Nor is it all your fault. But you are the President of the United States at this moment, and your job is to be a leader, not a huckster. The same is true for every other leader right now, and especially those with the big titles, the big teams, and the big pay-checks. The walls are indeed, falling down. This pandemic is quickly exposing the cracks, if not downright fractures, in our institutions, our systems, and our social norms. This includes those in government at all levels everywhere, businesses both big and small, philanthropy, and civil society. There is so much to be learned in terms of how we live and work, practice proper preparedness, and care for our most vulnerable populations, both in “normal” times and in times of crisis and need.

We should never forget that countless people suffer and die every single day for so many preventable reasons. We have normalized the abnormal because it has been going on for so long. We have become so used to the word ‘crisis’ being in the news that the meaning has become lost. We move on and move past the headlines around deaths due to violence, poverty, addiction, preventable diseases, and mental-health, and we do this for so many reasons, perhaps the most common of which being it is someone else’s problem to solve. It may be someone else’s problem, but it is our problem too. Problems are everywhere, but so are solutions. We can all do something, or we can all do nothing. Isn’t it ironic that the number one message of this particular crisis is that we can in fact ALL do something that matters.

We can stay home. We can wash our hands. We can social distance. We can take care of one another. We can donate to charities serving the needy. We can search #covidkindness on twitter to lift our spirits. People really can be awesome!

In closing, I am quite sure I will continue to wake up before dawn for the foreseeable future. I am quite sure I will continue to yell at the television. And of course, I am going to keep sharing, posting, writing, and connecting; doing as I have done, out loud, for the past 12 years.

A few lines from the end of this poem I wrote and shared on March 14th called Maybe/Who/Next.

Let us all do the next right thing. Let us all do the next kind thing. Let us all do the next hopeful thing. Let us all do the next generous thing. The next compassionate thing. The next wise thing. The next rational thing. The next loving thing. The next safe thing. The next calm thing. And then. Do it again and again. We are all connected. We always have been. We always will be. (May heeding the call to ‘social distance’ be the force that actually draws us closer together)

I have written 778 blog posts since 2008. If you want to check them out you can find them here. And of course you can sign-up to have them emailed directly to your inbox. 

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*A friend shared with me this white paper called “Public-Private Cooperation for Pandemic Preparedness and Response: A Call to Action”, which was prepared in partnership with the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the World Economic Forum, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation last year. Again, for a second, I did not know whether to laugh or cry. And then I cried.

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