A Brief Note on Leadership Ethics, for Sen. Kirk and Others

Attempting to explain Martha Coakley’s difficulties convincing a Democratic populace in Massachusetts that it should elect a Democratic U.S. Senator, the current place-holder in the seat she is running for, Sen. Paul Kirk, said this: “It comes from the fact that Obama as president has had to deal with all these major crises he inherited: the banks, fiscal stimulus…”

You should not have to be a Republican or an Obama opponent to see the ethics fouls in that statement, which echoes what has been, sadly, something of a default position of the Administration whenever things go sour. The ethics fouls are 1) breach of responsibility 2) breach of accountability, and 3) disrespect for the American public.

One full year after taking office, President Obama, his team and his political supporters are fully responsible for what is good and bad in the nation; fully accountable for the effectiveness, or lack of it, as they attempt to address national matters, and must not insult the intelligence of the American public by crying, “it’s not our fault!” whenever something doesn’t work.

Every U.S. President, save George Washington, inherited problems from the administration of his predecessor, and George may have inherited the biggest mess of all. A leader takes over,  begins identifying problems and taking measures to solve them. At the moment of taking power, those problems belong to him, and he and the government he leads must resolve to be accountable for success or failure. Oh, in their private moments I am sure that Andrew Johnson cursed Abraham Lincoln for having the bad timing to get shot just as the fractured country had to be put back together; I’m sure Herbert Hoover felt sorry for himself that Calvin Coolidge and Warren G. Harding left a ticking time-bomb in the economy that exploded on Hoover’s watch; I have no doubt that L.B.J. would have liked to use a time machine to convince Eisenhower and J.F.K to get out of Viet Nam; I think it’s likely Gerald Ford gnashed his teeth over having to pardon Richard Nixon for Nixon’s transgressions, knowing that his own credibility would be crippled as a result. But they all kept those thoughts to themselves, because strong leaders don’t make excuses for problems; they try to fix them, and if they don’t succeed, they take the criticism and try again.

Our current leaders sought power, with explicit and implicit commitments that they were up to the task of governing, accepted the daunting challenges (and they are always daunting), and were willing to be responsible for meeting  them, to be held accountable for their success in dealing with them, and to be courageous and honest in the process.

Whining statements like Kirk’s violate all of these commitments, and show poor leadership skills as well.

And they don’t even work.

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