by: Brooke Allen, Co-Founder of Leaders not Rulers
Now is the first time I have ever been active in politics. This is the story of how that happened.
It all began on the evening of November 1, 2008. I was returning by taxi from Newark Airport. I said to my driver, “What do you think? In a few days we might elect our first ever black president.”
He said, “It won’t matter because the United States is no longer a community. No matter who is elected, he will only be President of the people who voted for him and the rest of you won’t accept him as your leader and will work to unseat him.”
He continued, “I am a Haitian, and I am a member of a Haitian community and we cannot survive in your country without a community. And, when we elect a leader, that leader leads all of us. You guys wouldn’t even recognize a leader if you saw one. You know you have a leader when you look back over the last year and you amaze yourself with all the things you’ve done for others in your community; things you didn’t know you had in you. You ask yourself how it happened, and then you realize it all started with the words or deeds of one person. That person is a leader.”
Then he drove in the nail. “But, you guys don’t want a leader. You want someone you can blame for things not being the way you want them to be. You want someone to pass rules that benefit you and you want someone to make other people do the things you want them to do. You want someone who doesn’t ask anything of you except to pay as little tax as you can get away with.”
He was right of course.
Reflecting on my own behavior, I voted as if I were electing the CEO of a corporation who would implement plans and pass laws that were aligned with my interest. I was behaving like a “special interest group” of one.
I did not vote for a President who would inspire me to feel kinship with other Americans or prompt me to voluntarily act in our collective best interest. I wasn’t alone – as the taxi driver said – none of us voted for leaders. We elected rulers, and when they did not pass the rules we wanted, we complained and organized to elect someone else next time.
I thought a lot about what the taxi driver said and the New York Times even published a letter of mine about how we need leadership who will guide the country in the production of a new generation of Americans who think of citizenship differently. Although I got good feedback, I did nothing to follow through and I certainly did not become active in politics.
Although I have not been active in politics, I do live according to my values, which had been shaped by my parents, by my schooling and by the leaders I had when I was young.
For example, from 1995 through 2014 I ran a business unit inside a larger firm. I wrote my own mission statement for my group, which read: “Our goal as a group is to act such that every person associated with our endeavor will feel that
at the end of the day they were better for it.”
I wrote a document that explained this mission, identified the stakeholders and itemized our values. We stayed true to these words throughout my 18-year tenure. You can find that document here.
I had a simple job description, which was: “Our job is to care. If we care we can figure out the rest and if we don’t care it doesn’t matter.” You can read about that here.
I was very liberal in my interpretation of what it means to care about every person associated with our endeavor. For example, I cared about job candidates whom I did not have the budget to hire. I gave them free skills training and job hunting advice. I even helped many of my candidates land jobs with competitors. That way a candidate could be better off even if they didn’t land a job with me.
Not only was this approach more soul-satisfying, it was less expensive and more effective than traditional methods. I taught other employers how to do what I did. You can read articles about it written by me for Science here and for Quartz here. You can read articles written about this process by the Wall Street Journal here and by Wired here.
In 2009 when I discovered that more than half of my friends and colleagues were out of work, I started NoShortageOfWork.com to encourage them to collaborate on projects, keep their skills current and help each other find paying work. Through a website, newsletter and frequent meetups this eventually helped thousands of people get through hard times. It is one of the things I’m most proud of.
I like to engage with social problems as a diligent researcher might. I share what I learn with others by creating things of value. Briefly, here are some of the other things I’ve done over the last decade or so.
In 2006, I joined CouchSurfing.org, got to know the founders. I studied the philosophy behind it that involved community responsibility, collaborative effort and the spirit of gifting. You can read my thoughts here.
In 2009, I attended Burning Man with Paul Zak, who heads The Center for Neuroeconomic Studies and who was studying gift economies. I became fascinated with Burning Man’s 10 Principles and not only did I return four more times, I have tried to incorporate the principles in my daily life.
In 2011, in order to better understand how colleges view themselves I started Questions for Colleges (Q4Colleges.com) with a Harvard senior. We interviewed dozens of administrators and professors and the main thing we discovered was that when I left home in 1970, colleges thought their mission was to create effective engaged citizens. They thought of society as the customer, the student as the product and education was the process of transforming raw materials into finished goods. Today, however, they view anyone with money as the customer (students, parents, alumni, grant writers, etc.). They think education and research is the product. Students go to college because they believe they can’t get a good job without a college degree and often discover later when they are loaded up with debt that they can’t get a good job with a degree. Citizenship and society have dropped out of the equation.
Upset with Trump’s electioneering antics and inspired by On Bullshit by Harry Frankfurt of Princeton University, in 2015, I created a game called ‘Cut the Bullshit’ and I brought a one-man show of the same name to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for a month’s run under the stage name, Len Bakerloo. That got me an invitation to give a TEDx talk in Krakow, Poland. I also wrote a Sherlock Holmes story for amateur bullshit detectives that you can find here.
To help you live by design rather than by default, I’ve created two decks of playing cards to help you think about yourself and your relationship with others. I call them Reflection Decks and you can download them for free here.
Please understand that I have not received income from any of these endeavors and I did almost all of it while holding down a day job. More than that, I’ve incurred tens of thousands of dollars in expense with these projects, which – as it turns out – still adds up to a small fraction of what New York University would want you to pay them for an MBA.
Although most of this activity was during Obama’s presidency, I do not give him high marks for his tenure. He failed my taxi driver’s test because Obama inspired me to do none of it. By the criterion I described in my 2009 letter to the Times, he did not replace management with leadership and he did not get government and business to switch from “allocating resources by greed” to “meeting a neighbor’s need.”
My greatest condemnation of Obama is that after eight years of his rule the electorate voted in a President who, in the words of Senator LIndsey Graham, is “a race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot” and who “doesn’t represent the Republican Party and who doesn’t represent the values that the men and women who wear the uniform are fighting for.”
Why do I blame Obama for Trump’s election?
Because more than anything else, the President’s job is to be a teacher and a moral leader. It isn’t good enough just to be an administrator.
Did Obama do what FDR Franklin Delano Roosevelt did when he inherited a country in dire financial straits? No. FDR began his tenure with these words, “We are determined to make every American citizen the subject of his country’s interest and concern, and we will never regard any faithful law-abiding group within our borders as superfluous. The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
In Since Yesterday, Fredrick Lewis Allen’s superb history of America from 1929-1939, he concludes that 1) unlike in dictatorships abroad, in the USA we did not do away with our essential civil liberties, 2) the government programs had stayed true to FDR’s words and performed their tasks humanely, and, 3) “…the American people had not yet quite lost their basic asset of hopefulness.”
What Obama did was get us back to a 2006 status quo where banks and corporations were run as they had been run, where large parts of our economy continued to lose ground to foreign competition and where the disparity between the rich and the poor reached new record highs. Although he ran on a nebulous platform of “change” and “hope” he changed little and great number of people living in the spaces between our cities increasingly felt that they had no hope of establishing themselves in the middle class.
After two years of Trump I’ve become more convinced then ever that our next President must be an inspirational leader rather than a despotic ruler. We need someone to guide us in rediscovering what it means to be an American and in deciding what sort of obligations we have toward each other.
It’s time for real change in how our Presidential candidates conduct themselves while running their campaigns. Rather than just put their efforts into raising money and marshaling volunteers to get them elected, why not give us a taste of their moral leadership and vision for how we might work toward a common good?
That is why I’ve decided to team up with Janusz and care about politics for the fist time in my life.
Won’t you join us? If not you, who? If not now, when?