03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Leadership is Needed Now for America to Have a Viable Economic Future

This week, the media seems more concerned with the futures of Jay Leno and Tiger Woods, two millionaires with some short-term problems, than with the millions of Americans watching the financial and spiritual foundations of their lives and livelihoods slip-sliding away. As a society, we seem content to reward a defensive end with a salary that could pay nearly three hundred public school teachers for a year. Every day there seems to be another reason to wish for stronger leadership to drive constructive dialogue about our shared values at all levels of the nation and our economy.

David Gergen, citing Bill George of the Harvard Business School, wrote, "We have come to realize that the economic crisis was less a matter of subprime mortgages than subprime leadership." Sad but true. As a consultant and teacher of leadership, I have often wondered how it is that a human being can sit at his or her desk and work diligently to support a decision that will profit their bosses, but at great cost to their fellow citizens. The financial machinations and 'creativity' of the last few years definitely qualify. And remember the Enron traders, caught on audiotape gleefully gloating over the gouging of "Grandma Millie?" They are classic examples of this kind of greed.

"Subprime leadership" is all about maximizing profits, right now, whatever the price. Very short term. Where is the view to the future of the organization or our society as a whole? That's the real crime here. Our system has gotten so perverse that "greed is good" seems to have trumped any understanding of the very principles of our democracy and the capitalist system we so cherish.

I'm sure the definitive film about credit default swaps will be coming soon to a theatre near you. In the meantime, watching Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Alex Gibney's excellent 2005 documentary, clearly shows how the values and attitudes at the top of a company make their way through the entire system. How else can a lower level employee find it legitimate to make huge profits by creating a power shortage and declare that the abused customers should "use candles." As a nation, we seem to keep ignoring history and repeating it. Enron was just a few years ago, but when do we apply the financial lessons of the 1930's?

In flusher times, I used to lead a lot of leadership training workshops for middle managers in some of our major financial organizations. When the subject turned to values-based leadership there was a common reaction. You could watch the eyes roll back in some of the heads, as people felt that such chatter was irrelevant to their business. "There's really only one value around here," some would say. Of course, they meant profit, at any cost. Folks who react that way are managers, at best, not leaders, concerned more with their own gains and advancement up the corporate ladder than with common values. How do I get ahead here? That's the only question they're asking. Unfortunately this thinking is still being rewarded across the industry by huge bonuses.

Other folks in the room would realize that in order to be a leader, in order to bring out the best in their employees and their organization, they needed to focus on values. They were asking different questions. Why do we do what we do? How do we best serve our customers, and thus preserve the long-range viability of our company and the society we serve?

As a consequence of the current economic crisis, organizations of all sizes have stopped organizational education and development efforts. My colleagues in management and leadership consulting are among the uncounted under-employed, with our revenues much diminished over the last year or so. The bailout process made it difficult for financial institutions to spend money on training, but where is the leadership crisis more evident? Leadership development is personal development. Almost all leadership research and teaching leads to the conclusion that leaders must be clear about their own values, live those values, and model the values through their own behavior, policies, and communication.

Essentially, this a choice between "I win/you lose" and "we all win." Our national dialogue, in our organizations, in the media, and in Congress, seems to be leaning towards the former. This needs to change if the USA is going to have a viable economic future. Our organizations and our government need to be investing in developing values-based leaders for the future, individuals with a vision incorporating our true "common wealth." Only by doing so can we sustain ourselves in this very global, very complex twenty-first century.