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The Spiritual Crisis of the Modern Economy

What is happening to America’s white working class?

The group’s important, and perhaps decisive, role in this year’s presidential election sparked a slew of commentary focused on, on the one hand, its nativism, racism, and sexism, and, on the other, its various economic woes. While there are no simple explanations for the desperation and anger visible in many predominantly white working-class communities, perhaps the most astute and original diagnosis came from the rabbi and activist Michael Lerner, who, in assessing Donald Trump’s victory, looked from a broader vantage point than most. Underneath the populist ire, he wrote, was a suffering “rooted in the hidden injuries of class and in the spiritual crisis that the global competitive marketplace generates.”

That cuts right to it. The modern economy privileges the well-educated and highly-skilled, while giving them an excuse to denigrate the people at the bottom (both white and nonwhite) as lazy, untalented, uneducated, and unsophisticated. In a society focused on meritocratic, materialistic success, many well-off Americans from across the political spectrum scorn the white working class in particular for holding onto religious superstitions and politically incorrect views, and pity them for working lousy jobs at dollar stores and...

Donald Trump and the Legacy of Andrew Jackson

Steve Bannon, the media executive and soon-to-be White House strategist, has been describing Donald Trump’s victory as just the beginning.  “Like [Andrew] Jackson’s populism,” he told the Hollywood Reporter, “we’re going to build an entirely new political movement.”

Newt Gingrich has compared Trump to Jackson for some time. Rudolph Giuliani declared on election night that it was “like Andrew Jackson’s victory. This is the people beating the establishment.” That may seem a comforting comparison, since it locates Donald Trump in the American experience and makes his election seem less of a departure.

Is Trump’s victory really like Jackson’s? On the surface, yes: In 1828, an “outsider” candidate appealed directly to the people against elites he called corrupt. A deeper look at Jackson’s victory complicates the comparison, but still says much about America then and now. 

Jackson’s road to victory began with a defeat. He was a Tennessee politician and plantation owner turned soldier, a man who, unlike Trump, had deep experience in government. As a general, he became the greatest hero of the War of 1812, and capitalized on his fame by running for president in 1824. But the electoral votes were...

Welcome to the End of Business as Usual in Government

Consider this as a friendly forewarning. It was prompted by a Washington Post article, “Trump has a plan for government workers. They’re not going to like it.” 

Leaders who join the new administration from the business world are likely to focus far more on internal performance issues. It is common for corporate executives to have regular staff meetings where each attendee reports on progress in achieving goals. New leaders will want the assurance that operations are progressing as planned, and where there are problems, they will want to know that corrective actions have been taken. Their approach to management is likely to expose what is the weakest link in government’s “people management” practices—the management of performance.

Laughter could be the most positive reaction to the performance ratings. New agency leaders will expect their reports to commit to stretch performance goals and are not likely to accept excuses for missing the goals. Accountability is assumed. For many it will not be an easy transition.

Generally, as long as projects stay on schedule, leaders from the business world are not likely to get involved; they are accustomed to delegating responsibility. With initiatives to strengthen workforce performance, corporate leaders would...

Leadership Lessons from the Classroom

The late great jazz trumpet player, composer, arranger and bandleader, Maynard Ferguson, was once asked why he devoted so much time to teaching young music students. His answer (I paraphrase) echoes in my mind to this day: “If you can teach, why wouldn’t you?” You got the impression from Maynard that teaching for him was a natural extension of living, breathing and playing the trumpet. The same goes for the best leaders in our organization. Effective leaders teach.

A fair number of my friends and colleagues think I’m nuts with my teaching load. In addition to coaching and speaking, I spend a significant number of evenings in classrooms with working professionals of all ages and vocations. I teach management and leadership courses, however, the content is almost subtext for the work of life that goes on in the classroom setting.

Four Leadership Lessons from Teaching

Here in no particular order are the lessons I gain (and am constantly reminded of) in this work that has become so important for me:

1. Every individual staring back at you on day one is on a personal mission. Most people are there to improve themselves and their situation. More than a...

Introverts Can Use Vulnerability to Become Strong Leaders

On Nov. 7, 2012, Jess Lee published a blog post titled “Why startup founders are so unhappy.” In it, she reflected on her experience building the fashion tech site Polyvore, and the unique challenges she faced as a self-described introverted CEO.

At the time, Polyvore was cash-flow positive and approaching 20 million unique visitors per month. The company had raised a $14 million Series C round earlier that year (and more than $20 million total). The five-year-old start-up was proving itself a success. Even so, Lee said that she struggled with moments of “extreme unhappiness”—something she identified as universal among startup founders, no matter their temperament, because of the high volatility and uncertainty of the journey. But early on, her introversion held her back in dealing with that unhappiness in one critical way.

Because she hated networking so much, she mostly kept her head down during Polyvore’s early years. In hindsight, she identified that as one of her biggest mistakes:

Without any perspective from other founders, my only data points on startups came from TechCrunch, which is filled with overnight success stories and positive spin. Therefore, every one of Polyvore’s problems felt like the end of the...

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