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Warren Bennis

Warren Bennis

Warren Bennis is University Professor and Distinguished Professor of Business at the University of Southern California. His newest book is 'Still Surprised: A Memoir of a Life in Leadership.'

The wrong return to our roots

Q: Has the recent success of the Tea Party come because of, or in spite of, the movement's lack of a formal leadership structure? Along with Wikipedia, open-source software and organizations like moveon.org, is this another example of the power of distributed leadership?

To begin with, "distributive leadership" is a rather fuzzy concept, generally encompassing anything from a "self-managed group" to a "team of leaders" to "co-leaders" to "consensus management." I could go on and on about its unwarranted expansiveness, but that alone is reason enough to wonder if such an amorphous, goulash of a term could be applied to any political movement, let along the fragmented nature of the Tea Party. The Tea Party, as far as I can tell, is a crazy-quilt of dyspeptic, disparate, desperate and, most of all, frightened souls who feel betrayed by their political homeroom (the Republican Party) on the one hand and, on the other, by their fear and loathing of the direction our president (who, so they say, is of "doubtful" citizenship and "possibly" a Muslim) is taking us.

The Tea Party is not really sure if Obama is a socialist but is genuinely worried that he's moving the country toward some kind of Euro-neo-Third Way. Others worry about his striving for closer ties with the Muslim community. In this week's Forbes Magazine, to take one example, Dinesh D'Souza (a Tea Party advocate if not a member) in his first sentence archly writes, "The president isn't exactly a socialist. So what's driving his hostility to private enterprise? Let's look to his roots." Later on in the piece, D'Souza writes that the director of NASA, Charles Bolden, "announced that from now on the primary mission of America's space agency would be to improve relations with the Muslim world....Bolden said that he got word directly from the president. 'He wanted me to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations...'"

Knowing Major General Charles Bolden's roots, I have to question whether he was quoted fully and accurately. He's a forthright military man, the first African-American astronaut and bravely patriotic. But D'Souza's craftily written column indirectly makes my point. The Tea Party cannot be compared at this point with any other organizational entity. It is clearly not an example of "distributive leadership," a term so broad that the entire state of Texas would not crowd it.

Nor is it yet, though it could become, a powerful national movement, even a Third Party. But at the present time, members of the Tea Party are erratically dispersed and are frustrated and lost, rooting around and searching nervously for some nativist panacea, some ground upon which they can proudly stand. Many of them are what Gunnar Myrdahl would have called the "under-class": not highly educated, and properly concerned about jobs and getting food on the table for their kids.

Sadly, Tea Party members are looking for relief and haven in all the wrong places: naive, untested, amateur politicians who can assuage their fears by guaranteeing them that the country of their forefathers will, Brigadoon-like, reappear. Long-time hard-right ideologues, like D'Souza and others, seductively and disingenuously write tracts that will be devoured by their frightened country-club colleagues, who worry that their upscale-real estate golf links might be displaced by housing projects.

A lot of well-intentioned others, who have good reason to worry, are looking for anyone who can write the right words, make the hollow promises, and make us all feel OK again. Well, this is not the time to "feel OK again," though we all eventually want that. This is the time to look courageously at the problems we're facing in the world right now; a world so labile, edgy and complicated that there are no easy solutions. We haven't been (this goes for both parties) imaginative or courageous enough to invent the future we must create.

As E.B White put it years ago in a New Yorker essay, "There is a bright future for complexity, what with one thing always leading to another." Let's hope the Tea Party and, more importantly, both of our dominant political parties speak out with clear-eyed optimism for the common good--a common good that rests on the solid grounds of democracy; that rests on a government that would not, should not, be a "distributive leadership" (whatever that is); and that rests on a nation with the resources and brains and resilience to solve complex problems that demand equitable, respectful solutions and results.

We've seen worse and we can prosper again, without resorting to fear-mongering and a betrayal of what this country has always stood for. We'll all be OK again, but only if we understand our roots.

By Warren Bennis

 |  September 22, 2010; 1:37 PM ET
Category:  Failures , Government leadership , Political leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: The pros and cons of decentralized leadership | Next: Tea Party lacking "post-heroic leadership"

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