Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Donkey, The Elephant and the Stan McChrystal school of responsibility

It's obvious that American political life needs a renewed culture of responsibility. The President has his 'matrix' and too many Republicans remain unwilling to speak up for the ethos of reason.

This speaks to something deeper. American politicians need to remember a long forgotten truth - responsibility and effective service are mutually dependent. American politicians need an example.

Stan McChrystal offers one.

Don't get me wrong, I know that McChrystal resigned amidst scandal. Ultimately however, that's the key point - McChrystal's imperfect life story speaks to the merits of responsibility. He proves the truth that so many reject - the truth that a life of honor need not be defined by a moment of disrepute. That redemption isn't just possible, but empowering.

McChrystal's life proves that taking political responsibility (whether via a resignation, or unqualified apology, or changing approach etc.) makes virtuous sense. As I see it, McChrystal's example offers three particular lessons.

1) The responsibility of accepting failure fosters 'institutional learning' - Absent a perceivable culture of responsibility, of 'institutional learning', leaders cannot inspire/expect high standards of initiative, conduct and commitment from their staff. This is critically important for an institution/company/political party/government's long term effectiveness. As McChrystal notes in regards to US Special Forces, accepting (rather than hiding from) failure enabled the stellar capabilities that define that military branch today. The lesson is clear - without a perceivable willingness to engage in serious introspection, trust hemorrhages from government.

2) Responsibility connects government to society - With public regard for government at an all time low, the need for a better union between politicians and society is great. The dichotomy is clear. While many Americans believe that their employment performance is inextricably tied to future advancement/employment opportunities, the political class is seen to play by a different set of rules. Or no rules at all (voting in ways that simply facilitate future careers on K Street). By taking responsibility as McChrystal did when he resigned, politicians would be seen as serious, accountable, respectable and redeemable (Mark Sanford won election to Congress because he was seen to have accepted and apologized for his indiscretions. At least in part, Weiner failed because he was seen as having attempted to evade his indiscretions).

3) Responsibility makes patriotic-political sense - In the face of his controversy, McChrystal resigned without qualification. In his words - as commander, “you’re responsible for everything bad that happens and everything good, and I accept that.'' In the end, McChrystal implicitly recognized that the 'service' is more important than 'the servant'. By putting the ideal before himself, McChrystal overcame his scandal. In its dissipating wake, he's cultivated a highly respected place in American society. But he's done more than that, he's also given strength to the notion of responsible public service.

American politicians could learn much from his example.

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