Caretaking Versus Envisioning
Monday, Dec. 3, 2007 | In 1984 the Wendy’s hamburger chain launched a commercial with three elderly ladies skeptically staring at a large hamburger bun when one cynically blurts, “Where’s the beef?” Overnight, a new American phrase to question the substance of an idea or product was born.
Today, in a similar vein, we ask you our fellow San Diegans and Americans this question: Where’s the Vision with our Leadership?
We are questioning the substance of our leadership — from the smallest of municipalities to the great halls of Congress and the White House. We see a full field of leaders and want-to-be-leaders across the political spectrum, yet we see in them an almost complete absence of the kind of vision that inspires cities and nations toward greatness. All politicians claim vision, yet after election-day we are repeatedly presented with paper shuffling and bureaucrat-think.
America is fundamentally an aspirational nation. As such, our leaders need to inspire: “We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal” (Jefferson), “We fight not to enslave, but to set a country free” (Paine), “All we have to fear is fear itself” (Roosevelt), “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” (Kennedy), “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed” (King), “Morning in America” (Reagan), et al.
In recent years we unfortunately have been inundated with meaningless platitudes like “Creating a New World Order,” “Building a Bridge to the 21st Century,” and “Compassionate Conservatism.” Even more troubling, the aspirational and inspirational ideas of yesteryear have been replaced with such mundane causes as Privatizing Social Security, Healthcare Savings Accounts, and Ethanol Subsidies. Yawn.
Where are today’s innovative and exciting public square ideas that will be the building blocks of tomorrow’s great cities and nations?
How would we view Ancient Athens if there hadn’t been a vision for something called democracy, or a Pericles and Pheidias with a grand concept of a Parthenon atop the Acropolis?
What would the world look like if the 13 American colonies hadn’t followed the liberating vision of Adams, Jefferson, Franklin and company?
What would America look like if Thomas Jefferson didn’t have the vision to grab the Louisiana Purchase when offered — an expensive, controversial and likely unconstitutional action?
How would we view Paris if the Parisian leaders of the 1880’s didn’t gamble on a controversial tower proposal by one Gustav Eiffel?
What would Eastern Europe and Russia look like if Ronald Reagan hadn’t challenged the status quo at the Berlin Wall with, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”?
On the local level, what would San Diego look like:
If city leaders in 1910 had not believed a sleepy town of less than 40,000 residents could host millions of people from around the world for the Panama-California International Exposition at Balboa Park?
If Roger Revelle, Herb York and a handful of other scientists and academics had not envisioned UCSD as a world-class research institution with an ability to rival the pre-eminent universities from around the globe?
If we hadn’t embraced Pete Wilson’s vision for a downtown redevelopment agency or Ernie Hahn’s unique concept of a Horton Plaza?
If we hadn’t followed Alan Uke, Malin Burnham and others in their vision for the Midway aircraft carrier as a major tourist destination?
If we hadn’t embraced John Moores vision for a downtown baseball park and revitalization project?
These visionary efforts were all controversial in their day and their leaders were met with naysayers at every turn, yet each vision propelled their respective cities and nations forward. These tremendous leaps would never have occurred without visionary leaders of great willpower and determination.
There is a clear need for both visionary leaders and caretaker leaders in government — but a balance of the two is essential. Unfortunately, our political system has evolved into a system that stifles visionary leaders, yet fosters the caretaker leaders whom are unwilling to risk their political office to take on bold, visionary ideas. This dearth of vision is why so few memorable leaders have surfaced in recent years. This leadership imbalance must end.
Caretaker leaders, or “administrators” by another name, have endless excuses for their lack of vision — they point to the extensive problems and challenges they face in governing and their lack of time for other pursuits. Cleaning-up, in essence, becomes their priority. Clean-up operations are normal everyday functions of government in response to problems left behind by prior administrations, the inevitable emergencies that surface, and of course the self-inflicted controversies. But since when do clean-up operations inspire cities and nations to strive forth toward greatness? They do not.
This is the role of visionary leaders who create and foster new ideas. Ironically, it is also the visionary leaders who more often than not come up with new and unique solutions to existing problems.
With this in mind, it is critical that vision always be a cornerstone in our public square. If it isn’t, we rot at the core as a society.
Similar to Capitol Hill and City Hall, corporate boardrooms also spend a great deal of time addressing problems and unexpected emergencies. But these boards also take considerable time to focus on their vision and how to take their companies to the next level.
When was the last time you heard a government official seriously discussing how to take their city to the next level? Probably never. Government leaders by and large do not grasp the importance of this dual leadership role. In San Diego’s current situation, Mayor Jerry Sanders has inherited one of the worst financial predicaments and morale problems in city history. Vision is the key to overcoming these challenges.
Ronald Reagan is an ideal example of a visionary leader. Reagan was not in office to be a caretaker, he sought office because he had a grand vision for America and he was committed to carrying it forward. He is now near universally regarded as a great leader. Why? Because of his aspirational vision and follow through with that vision. (caretaker leaders like Ford, Carter, Bush I, and Clinton will never be remembered in a similar light. On the local level, Wilson is widely viewed as a great leader, whereas caretakers Golding and Murphy are not.)
We need to reject the caretaker’s stranglehold on elected office and once again seek leaders with vision. As it has always been, it is the leaders who chart courses of bold, thoughtful ideas that propel cities and nations to rise to heights previously unimagined.
“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” (Proverbs 29:18)
About the Authors: George Mullen is creator of the proposed City of Life identifier for San Diego. Steve Francis is Chairman of AMN Healthcare Services (NYSE: AHS) and a 2005 mayoral candidate. Send them an e-mail at email@example.com.
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