By Thomas H. Little, Ph.D.
A few weeks ago, I was visiting Austin, Texas to prepare for our upcoming New Speakers Orientation (January 22-24, 2015). It was one of those rare trips where I am not traveling with family, friends or staff so, while the days were full of meetings, the evenings were free. I got to spend one evening combining two of my favorite things – grand theatres and classic movies. I enjoyed “Citizen Kane” (1941), a film many consider the best American film of all time, in the historic Paramount Theatre – what a treat. (With apologies to my lovely wife, it was great to be alone for this one!)
As I watched this decades-old classic about the political rise and fall of Charles Foster Kane (Orson Wells), I was struck by how much politics has changed and yet how little it has changed. On the one hand, I noted the dominance of print media, and especially print media controlled by one or two moguls. Newspapers, and to a lesser extent, radio and news reels, determined not only what issues people thought about, but how to think about them. Publishers filtered the political news of the day through their own biased lenses and delivered it to the masses. Today, with the advent of “new media,” political leaders can and do bypass the “mass media” to reach the public in ways unimaginable to Charles Foster Kane and his friend Jed Leland (Joseph Cotton).
And yet, despite the dramatic changes in technology, I was struck more by what has not changed since the movie was made. Just like many of our leaders today, Charles Foster Kane was undone by his own appetites – his desire to be loved, admired, accepted and needed. How many times do we read that story today in blogs, tweets and news feeds? Further, we see that politics then, as now, is often a dirty business where rumors are accepted as fact and mere innuendo can bring down a political career. Finally, I was struck, as I am every time I watch this great film, that Kane, who began with the noblest of intentions eventually becomes motivated not by those intentions, but by a desire to win and possess power – over things, people and governments.
Early in the film, upon buying a second-rate newspaper, Kane publishes his “Declaration of Principles,” promising “I will provide the people of this city with a daily paper that will tell all the news honestly. I will also provide them with a fighting and tireless champion of their rights as citizens and as human beings.” By the end of the movie, the “Declaration of Principles,” ends up in small pieces in the fireplace, along with the grandiose dreams of social change of its author. All too often, I see similar things happen to leaders of today – their noble causes are replaced by a desire simply to maintain the leadership post or keep the office, with little thought to the reasons they sought that post or office in the first place.
In the next six months, SLLF will offer two programs that I believe will help keep today’s leaders from ending up on the wood pile of history as Kane’s cherished (spoiler alert) sled. This fall (October 9-11, 2014) SLLF and the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics will host a meeting on Ethics and Leadership in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. In this meeting, we will discuss why leaders (both public and private) falter and steps that can be taken to prevent such lapses and create a culture where ethical leadership is expected and rewarded. Then, next spring (March 19-21, 2015), SLLF is hosting a program at the Reagan Library on leaving a positive leadership legacy. In that program, we will explore how you can not only maintain the lofty goals you set for yourself, but develop strategies for achieving them and leaving your chamber, state and country better than you found it.
I hope many of our friends in the legislative and corporate worlds will be able to join us for one or both of these programs and maybe we can help you implement your own “Declaration of Principles.”