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As part of the Coro Fellows Program in Public Affairs, these 12 Southern California fellows are engaged in a full-time, nine-month, graduate-level leadership training program that prepares individuals for public-affairs leadership.

Curing our evolutionary hangover

Q: This week's nuclear summit presents one of those difficult leadership challenge: focusing attention and resources on a low-probability problem that would be disastrous if it occurred. Global warming, 100-year floods, financial meltdowns are other examples. How can a leader fight the natural tendency among followers to put off dealing with what seem like such abstract and complicated threats?

Destruction from a major threat, much like the nuclear threat globally, hits home in California in the form of the decaying Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, a major hub for California's water system. According to a March 2009 report by the California Department of Water Resources, there is a 40% probability that major seismic activity will flood numerous Delta islands between now and 2030. This would devastate the California economy and, more importantly, leave 25 million residents without a critical water source for over a year.

Yet time and again, California residents and leaders struggle to put this problem into perspective. Those understanding the gravity of the issue in the water community hope that their constituents will support the $11.1 billion water bond on the ballot this November. If it doesn't pass, if California communities cannot be led to support protection against a future threat, we can only blame genetics.

As a human species, we have always been programmed to focus on imminent dangers, like predators and starvation, rather than long-term issues, such as climate change and nuclear proliferation. Paul R. Ehrlich of Stanford University refers to this human behavior for short-term threat evaluation as an "evolutionary hangover." Leaders must fight this natural tendency that has been embedded into their genetic psychology.

In order to reconcile this behavior, leaders must seize moments in which their followers begin to understand how imminent so-called "long-term" threats truly are. Instead of framing the water bond as an $11.1 billion payment, perhaps leaders should frame it as smaller, 800-million-dollar investments over 30 years. The recent seismic activity in California could also be used to add to the gravity of the situation.

Leaders are those that can convince individuals to behave how they otherwise would not. In this context, leaders are tasked with making the abstract concrete, pushing the long-term problem into smaller, short-term threats, and thereby creating investment amongst their followers. Maybe that's the hangover cure we've been searching for. --Parsa Sobhani

Just do it!

The art of leadership is being able to act in the present while strategically planning for the future. The natural tendency among followers with low-probability issues, no matter the potential magnitude of the problem, is to put it off until it becomes a problem. It's important that no matter how tedious an issue currently seems, leaders do not adopt this mindset. Leaders are charged to act on behalf of the followers.

These low-probability, high impact issues have culminated to shape the world we live in today. For example, the impact of a woman's right to vote was a small issue in the 18th century. However, those efforts paved the way for constitutional change in the 20th century. I'm sure many questioned the priority of this battle at the time, but two centuries of pragmatic work made a difference.

Although women's suffrage isn't the same as the possible occurrence of a natural disaster or nuclear war, it shows impact. Other impacts may not be clearly seen or understood because they are low-probability; people forgot about them and moved on. As a leader, making sure that low-probability, high-risk issues don't happen should be a high priority.

If this mentality had been adopted long ago, California would probably have a more stable water supply, AIDS/HIV probably wouldn't be a world epidemic, Detroit probably wouldn't be car-less, small children probably wouldn't have pesticides in their blood, the ozone probably wouldn't have a hole in it, and corporations probably wouldn't need bailouts.

All these things would probably be different today if leaders fought the tendency to put off dealing with what seems like abstract and complicated concerns and just did it. --Ashley Nesby

These are the stakes

The average American is willing to invest in insurance, whether it is for their car, home, or iPad, because people do not want to lose things that are valuable to them. While this week's nuclear summit brings light to an issue with grave ramifications for the world, the discussion and potential policy decisions will not galvanize the public as much as a direct message that personalizes the threat.

On September 7, 1964 the landmark "Daisy Girl" advertisement for the Johnson Presidential Campaign aired on television. In the ad, an innocent girl plays with a daisy during an ominous countdown before the commercial pans to a video of a nuclear explosion. Then President Johnson speaks the immortal words, "These are the stakes."

That thirty-second advertisement was only played once. Johnson won in a landslide. Tony Schwartz, the creator of the advertisement, was able to make the possibility of nuclear threat real to the public. The key to rallying people behind a low probability, high-risk problem is to strike at their hearts, and show them what they can lose if the issue is ignored. --Jimmy Duong

By Coro Fellows

 |  April 13, 2010; 4:27 AM ET
Category:  Political leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Those who talk about evolutionary hangovers need to deal with the reality that those hangovers are all that we have to get by with. One set of those hangovers are the abstract ideologies that often do more damage than good. Many get lost in one or another of them and lose contact with concrete reality. As far as risks go, the reality is that we are always living with them. People are more or less sensivtive to those risks probably based in large part on their particular genes. Those (like me) who are cautious about taking risks have to deal with the reality that the big winners are almost always among those who are most comfortable with taking big risks. The big losers may also be less fortunate members of the same group. But the persistence of life depends on the winners. The more of them there are in the good times, the more likely at least a few of them will make it through the bad times to the next to the next era of opportunity. The fact that many fall by the wayside is just the inevitable collateral damage. Societies may make use of ideologs to help organize the group in some semi coherent way. But those of them who expect to leave the risk takers behind have lost touch with the real world.

Posted by: dnjake | April 13, 2010 2:15 PM
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I worry about third world countries having nuclear capability and the will to use it. But, at the same time, I wonder what right the United States has to dictate terms to other countries.
The treaty being signed is only between the US and Russia. The so called third world countries that are provoking the concerns have not signed any kind of treaty regarding the limitation of their nuclear programs.
Why would they be legally bound to a contract which they did not sign?

Posted by: leslieswearingen | April 13, 2010 1:47 PM
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An interesting perspective. I think that perhaps it highlights why so many people get into debt. They see the benefit of buying something on credit, but the pain isn't immediate, like when one pays with cash.

An interesting but very real threat is that New Orleans will be reclaimed by the Gulf of Mexico. As it is right now, the federal gov't is forcing the Mississippi River to stay in its current path. If one looks at satellite images of Louisiana, it is fairly plain that the true delta for the Mississippi River is unstable, and changes periodically. Right now, were it not for a couple of dams the Congress mandated the Corps of Engineers to build, the Mississippi River's main course would be shifting west towards the Atchafalaya River.

In spite of man's best efforts, my bet is that sooner or later that river will win and change course. Without the silt being dumbed down stream to hold off the Gulf of Mexico, it is probable that sooner or later the Gulf will consume New Orleans.

Posted by: A1965bigdog | April 13, 2010 1:21 PM
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"leaders must seize moments in which their followers begin to understand how imminent so-called "long-term" threats truly are"

How do we distinguish these "leaders" from manipulators and other kinds of criminals and trouble makers? The problem with this kind of thinking is that it assumes the incompetence of "followers" to make a rational judgement. It also assumes the superiority of "leaders", which leads to totalitarianism.

Posted by: kengelhart | April 13, 2010 12:37 PM
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The art of living is staying far away from "leaders" and learning to lead your own life.

Posted by: bigbrother1 | April 13, 2010 11:33 AM
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