Saturday, November 21, 2015

A leadership lesson learned?

As turmoil continues around the world, back here in Massachusetts there's been a kerfuffle surrounding Governor Charlie Baker's remarks about limiting Syrian refugees' access to the state. Several of us, including me, we appalled by what he said. Among those was US Representative Seth Moulton.  Moulton's criticism was, in turn, deemed partisan by the Governor, an accusation Moulton roundly denied. The Governor, too, said that his remarks had been taken out of context, and he appeared upset that he had been accused of a lack of compassion. Indeed, he declined to sign a letter from other Republican governors asking President Barack Obama to suspend efforts to resettle Syrian refugees in the U.S.

A friend on Facebook noted, with regard to this last item:

At least our governor is intelligent enough to listen to his constituency. And it shows we can push him on things, which is a good thing. Bravo Baker for listening and learning from your people.

The question that I ask today is what lesson was learned and how might other leaders also learn from this episode.  If the only lesson Charlie learned from the events was that he had gotten out too far in front of an issue relative to public sentiment and that therefore he had to backtrack, that's just a lesson in politics.

If, however, he learned another leadership lesson, then there is a better result for him personally and for the state.  You see, what Charlie did in his initial comments was to fan a spark of fear, resentment, and xenophobia among at least some people in the state. It does not matter whether Charlie's words were taken out of context. He grabbed the moment and became a lightning rod.

For example, here's one comment from Michele that I received on my blog post:

So if I don't like what this government is doing or the people that are running this country, I should pack up a couple tiny things, my very small children and move to another country? I joined the Navy. I was honored to work beside the Marine Corps. So instead of trying to fix my country I should move and expect everyone else to take care of me? My Grandfather remembers the government coming to his father's house to offer aid to farmers hit by the depression. He proudly refused. Where is the working through adversity attitude? Why is everything "give me help"?

I replied:

Michele, please take a look at some of the pictures and read the stories from these folks. This is not about working through adversity. This is about having your community destroyed, losing your housing and possessions, with threats of bombs every day.

She answered:

I know. I sobbed when their stories started coming through. My concern is my children, Paul. As is their concern I am sure. I am not willing to sacrifice my children's safety as they are not either. We are making decisions based on the same priorities. 

We should in no way discount people's fears when bad things happen in the world. But acknowledging that fear is not the same as fanning it.

Charlie doth protest too much when he claims his words were taken out of context.  The overall context was that a slew of mainly Republican governors were saying approximately the same thing at the same time.  The Governor needs to understand that the moral stature of an elected official is such that his job during times of stress is to bring people together, to appeal to their better instincts and values, and not to their fears.

When he says that "my job is protect the people of Massachusetts," he is both saying too much and too little.  Too much because no one person can protect six million.  Too much because, on this issue, he has no jurisdiction in any event.  Too little because his job is to help maintain a sense of community during a period of unrest.  Too little because his job is to remind us of our underlying values and shared history.

The question for Governor Baker is whether he learned that leadership lesson, not just a passing lesson in politics.


Sean Roche said...

Important post, but "slew of mainly Republican governors"? More than twenty-five Republican governors and one Democratic governor.

Not nit-picking. It mischaracterizes the context. It was political to start with.

nonlocal MD said...

That was really an extraordinarily cowardly thing for him to say, and he was echoed by my own Gov. Hogan in MD, also to my surprise and disappointment. I can only conclude they are pandering to their nutty base. Both should take a leadership lesson from French President Hollande, who knows that his people are scared to death, with much better reason than your Michelle and others:

Anonymous said...

Sadly I do have to agree that many Americans are getting tired of being the place where we are expected to suck up and pay for many ills, when we are hated and don't get the same thing back.

Frankly ISIS and the like said we are main targets, and how else do you think they will ship people in? Guess what, it will be by the refugees. We've also seen what happens with the refugees when they came pouring in to other countries. When we take care of our own fine, but until I see the govt. give a darn about our people, our own vets, then I have no clue any one expects the American public to absorb thousands of people when we can't do for our own.

Saying NO is not bad.

Carole said...

Exactly!!!- Mr. Levy from the previous post to this one., "You Nailed It"
Truth is they spoke to soon without thinking it through, again assuming it's what we people all needed and wanted to hear.
I so predicted there would be major backtracking, but what I didn't predict or see coming was them blaming us for taking what
They said out of context. Rather smart rebound- passing the buck of blame, not the first time or last, right?