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The Leader's Blindspot: Governor Christie's Example

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Weeks, actually just days ago, Chris Christie was riding a star, destined to be a serious contender for the 2016 elections. If he wasn't a candidate, he certainly was going to make a difference in who was. He built his reputation on directness, straight talk and action. Honesty and politics aside, when his state needed help, he'd reach across any aisle even if it tipped a presidential race. He led a state through disaster and vulnerably talked about weight and surgery. But, along the way his staff lost a sense of his values or, perhaps, they were given full rein to make choices without values considered.

It happens sometimes when the taste of higher ground is sweet. It happens when people think they know you, know what you'll do for the next step on the ladder...or when someone cares more about self than service. When the end matters most of all, the means can create all sorts of havoc. Whether he knows or not, whether his apology is sincere enough, his shock real or not...he lost control of his administration or he thought political vengeance could be kept a secret. Either way, bad decisions led to irrevocably bad consequences. People are fired; people resigned; press conferences and investigations and front-page headlines followed. In his annual address to his state, he tried to retrieve a leadership agenda about education and put the reactive necessity behind him. But, it won't be easy. Opponents chuckle in the background. Others more discreetly wait and watch to see if he can and will recover his political power. Fort Lee and its mayor must be outraged and, yet, relieved that truth has begun to unfold. 

All this because conscience and courage were missing in an administration purportedly built on strong ethics. Where were the people along the line of email directives who said, "No! I won't and he wouldn't want this"? Where are the loyal dissenters who refuse to do what is wrong? Have we fired them, left them behind, or do we hold them captive in troubled silence by shackles of fear? And ultimately, was there anyone who had courage enough to ask him the question or share what was happening? Did they dare?

Where does the blind spot come from? How do we not notice that it has insidiously impacted our vision? What causes it? Is it our arrogance, our confidence or our certainty? Leaders need to ask those questions and sit, quietly sometimes, to hear the answers that arise only from deep within...because any of us could become Chris Christie.

One of the most critical judgments leaders make is who to trust. We guess that Christie must be feeling badly betrayed. Whether he knew or not, those he trusted failed him and have exposed him to the public as the wizard behind the curtain. In Leadership Without Easy Answers, Ron Heifeitz et al suggest that leaders need to protect the voices of leaders without authority and give cover to those who raise hard questions (p.128). Too often leaders do exactly the opposite. Questions don't always mean opposition; sometimes they are tests of values and those are worthy of the leader's ear. We need those who will stand up to us and demand that we live what we say. None of us aspire to build an organization around the type of loyalty or hubris or authority that led to this week. Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson attributes the crisis to "stupidity and swagger." It seems both were in play.

What can we learn from this very public leadership crisis? We can remember how vulnerable we really are and remember our motivations and actions can easily become transparent. We can look around our organizations...Does anyone on my team ask me the difficult questions when they think I am drifting off course?  What if our values played out on the front page? Would we be proud or embarrassed? Under what circumstances might someone "go rogue"?  Power is given to those with whom the darkest secrets are shared. How can we continually ascertain where people stand and how they are using their positions to help lead the organization?  These are questions that deserve our serious consideration.  These are answers that must come from deep and honest sources within. 

Some of us have networks of colleagues with whom we can have conversations about these factors. Others live by keeping others at arm's length from the heartbeat. Still others don't even want to have the inner conversations that allow us to question ourselves and get back on track. Rarely are these moments part of our training, exposed for us by our mentors, or offered as professional development.  In fact, most frequently these inner conversations are not considered to be professional work. But how can we look at Christie this week and believe that?

Yet, if we purport to moral authority and integrity at the very core of our leadership capacity how can we neglect it or assume it just will be there when we need it?  No, it requires attention and development as do all our other capacitates. We cannot allow ourselves to wander off track, for whatever reason.  And we cannot allow those who work with and for us to do so either. 

Whether in our name, or theirs, the entire organization suffers when decisions are made without the integrity our positions demand.  Rushforth Kidder, in his book Moral Courage, examines the importance of ethics in the real world. Kidder writes, "Standing up for values is the defining feature of moral courage. But having values is different from living by values--as the twenty-first century is rapidly learning" (p. 3). Well, Governor Christie is just the most recent example among many who have brought us face to face with that distinction. He fired Bridget Anne Kelly for lying to him. Fundamentally, of course, that is a problem but what about the decision to do it in the first place? Therein, is the blindspot. Gerson went on to comment, "The bridge lane closings and the cover up did not result from staffers with insufficient regard for loyalty to Christie but from staffers with insufficient regard for the public trust. This is where the real deficit of trust now exists." 

Let us take note of the lessons to be learned from Governor Christie and his team.  It is an important reminder that while we are busy working harder than ever to do all we are charged with, leading schools with all of our hearts, that our attention to morals, ethics, and the capacity of our team to join us in this journey, is of utmost importance.  Without attention to it, all of our good work can be dismissed.  With attention to it, we can continue to lead our schools forward with the trust of our parents, students, faculties and staff, colleagues and communities. Conscience and courage must define us. Let's be astute and humble observers as Governor Christie's leadership lessons unfold.

Resources:

Heifetz, Ronald A. (1994). Leadership Without Easy Answers.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Kidder, Rushforth M. (2005).  Moral Courage. New York:  Harper Collins

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